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West Virginia University 2011 Preview

Holgorsen, Mountaineers to Fly High in ’11

August 25, 2011
By JIM ELLIOTT , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

MORGANTOWN - Despite the unnerving circumstances that ultimately led to his hiring as head coach, it looks like former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen landed in a pretty sweet situation in his first year on the job at West Virginia University.

He's taking over a program that is coming off three straight 9-4 seasons, has been to nine straight bowl games - two o f them BCS victories - and has finished no worse than second place in the Big East for nine straight seasons.

There's also enough talent left that the Mountaineers were voted as the preseason pick to win the much-maligned Big East this season, earning 21 of a possible 24 first-place votes in the media poll.

Still, there were there those who saw a thirst in the program - notably athletics director Oliver Luck - and felt that it needed an energy drink.

Enter Holgorsen, a finalist for the 2010 Broyles Award, given to the nation's top assistant football coach, who has proved during the years that when the idea is moving the ball, there are few better.

Last year, Oklahoma State's offense was ranked No. 3 in the country, averaging 520 yards per game - 345.9 passing. The team averaged 44.2 points per game. Twice it scored 65.

West Virginia limped to that 9-4 record, including an abysmal 23-7 loss to North Carolina State in the Champ Sports Bowl, despite having a defense that never gave up more than 23 points in any single game because the offense often struggled to hold up its end of the bargain.

Holgorsen's offenses are wide open. The Mountaineers, the last few years, have played it relatively close to the vest.

The question begs. Will Holgorsen spend an entire season trying to pound square pegs into round holes?

He's not too concerned about it.

''We'll take what we got and figure out who our best players are, and we'll figure out how to play them and get them the ball,'' he said. ''You never have exactly what you want, but we'll take what we have and find a way to make it work.''

The guy exudes confidence, and he's been a winner everywhere he's been. He's earned the benefit of the doubt.

With junior Geno Smith, who has 13 career starts and 18 games under his belt, Holgorsen has an experienced, play-making quarterback to run his offense.

Smith completed 241 of 372 passes for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns, just the second time in school history a quarterback has thrown for more than 2,500 yards in one season.

''His confidence is so high,'' Holgorsen said. ''I have to remind him of that sometimes. Last year with Brandon Weeden (at Oklahoma St.), his confidence wasn't very high, because he hadn't played football in eight years. I had to do a lot of patting on the back with him. With Geno, we don't have to do any patting on the back. If he makes a big play, he's going to let everyone know about it. We've got to ground him a little bit.''

The backup is true freshman Paul Millard, who came in with big credentials, having completed 331 of 500 passes for 4,491 yards and 47 touchdowns at Flower Mound High School last fall.

Three freshman quarterbacks - Barry Brunetti, Brian Athey, and Jeremy Johnson - have all entered and exited the program in the last 20 months, leaving the position empty behind Smith and Millard.

''Anybody have any ideas?,'' Holgorsen asked. ''I can't make one appear. We're asking questions. Maybe we can put an ad in the paper or you guys can say we want a quarterback that wants to play and throw the ball to show up and come see me, and if it works out we'll put you out there.''

Joining those guys will be a group of inexperienced running backs, as the school's all-time, all-purpose yardage leader Noel Devine graduated.

The guy with the most experience is fullback Ryan Clarke, who had 80 carries for 291 yards and eight touchdowns, followed by power back Shawne Alston (56 for 248). Behind them, it's thin, as the next three guys on the rushing list to return are a quarterback (Smith) and two receivers (Brad Starks and Tavon Austin).

Sophomore Trey Johnson (5-10, 180) added 15 carries for 42 yards last season, and on down the line, Daquan Hargrett, who had three carries last year, decided to transfer.

The guy getting the most attention is Vernard Roberts, a 5-foot-11, 175-pound back out of Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.

''He has a great first step and extremely quick twitch,'' Holgorsen said, adding that Roberts had the best understanding of the blocking schemes and where to go with the ball among the newcomers.

Dustin Garrison (5-8, 165), another true freshman out of Texas, makes people miss at the point of attack, the coach said.

Another newcomer is Andrew Bluie (5-9, 191), who the coach says has already done some good things.

''That all makes Trey play that much harder and motivates him,'' Holgorsen said. ''(Alston) is also a guy that we are going to find a way for him to play.''

So how what is the optimal number of running backs?

''Around three,'' Holgorsen said. ''Three guys that can carry the ball. If you get any more than that, then somebody's probably getting pushed out. Last year (at Oklahoma State), we had three, and I've never had more than three. That's not counting the bigger guys that have other roles.''

Among those guys is fullback Matt Lindamood out of Parkersburg, who had 15 carries for 50 yards last season, and senior Ricky Kovatch (zero carries last season, though he played in all 13 games).

The receiver position is an important one in Holgorsen's offense - his top receiver last year, Justin Blackmon, won the Biletnikoff Award - and the Mountaineers have a good one returning in Austin.

Early in camp, Holgorsen didn't particularly like what he'd seen from this group.

''Those guys are all incredibly inconsistent all of them,'' he said. ''A couple of them will have a good day and a couple of them will have a bad day.''

Austin had 58 catches for 787 yards and eight touchdowns last season, tying the departed Jock Sanders (the school's all-time leading receiver) for No. 2 on the WVU sophomore receptions list. He had three games with more than one touchdown reception.

The player that continues to catch Holgorsen's eye is redshirt junior Ryan Nehlen - grandson of former head coach Don Nehlen - who had a breakout spring game.

The coach raves about Ryan Nehlen like few others, saying he's the only receiver who gives it everything he's got, every day.

''The rest of them have been spotty,'' Holgorsen said. ''I don't know how those guys can get worse from spring, but it looks to me like some of them have.''

Rounding out the receiving corps is Stedman Bailey, a redshirt sophomore who had 24 catches for 317 yards and four touchdowns. The oft-injured Starks had 19 catches for 317 yards and four touchdowns.

Redshirt junior J.D. Woods caught 18 passes for 205 yards and a touchdown and Ivan McCartney and Coley White also return to the unit.

The tight end position, which has changed dramatically under Holgorsen and will be split wide at times, is covered by senior Tyler Urban.

Along the offensive line, three starters return with the loss of senior Josh Jenkins to a season-ending injury suffered in the spring game. They are senior tackle Don Barclay, a second team All-Big East selection last season, junior tackle Jeff Braun, and junior center Joe Madsen.

Of those guys, Barclay has played in 39 career games, Madsen has played 25, and Braun, the team leader last year with 48 knockdowns, has 24 games under his belt.

Senior tackle Tyler Rader and redshirt sophomore Pat Eger might have had an edge on the other two sports, while ophomore guard Cole Bowers, senior guard Chad Snodgrass, junior center John Bassler, all have a range of experience.

Adding depth will be redshirt freshman Quinton Spain, redshirt junior Nick Kindler, and and redshirt sophomore Curtis Feigt.

Holgorsen admits he's not much of a defensive guy, having spent his entire career on the offensive side of the ball, so he was wise in keeping Paden City's Jeff Casteel - widely gaining a reputation as one of the best defensive coordinators in the business - and his staff intact.

How special was Casteel's unit last season?

It was the nation's third-best total defense and one of its stingiest in terms of giving up points.

The Mountainteers ranked third in scoring defense, second in rushing defense, second in sacks, 11th in pass defense, second in third-down defense, second in first-down defense, and tied for 26th in tackles for loss.

But the unit lost seven starters, including three of the top four and eight of the top 12 tacklers.

There is some star power in the group of returnees, chiefly defensive end Bruce Irvin, who had 14 sacks last season in what was primarily a pass-rushing specialists position, and found himself on a bunch of watch lists prior to this season now that he'll be on the field more often. Two-year starter at end, Julian Miller, who had nine sacks last season, has been moved over to take Scooter Berry's spot at tackle.

Keith Tandy, who led the Big East with six interceptions, returns to a cornerback spot. Also back is linebacker Najee Goode, who will be looked at for big things as he's really the only linebacker with any major experience back.

Along the line, Berry and Chris Neild, a big hole plugger who became a seventh-round pick of the Washington Redskins, are gone leaving Miller, redshirt junior J.B. Lageman, redshirt junior C.J. Huffman, redshirt sophomore Will Clarke, and redshirt freshman walk-on Ted Rietschlin.

Veterans Jorge Wright, a redshirt junior who found trouble in the offseason, and redshirt senior Josh Taylor will compete for Neild's nose tackle spot, along with redshirt freshman Trevor Demko, who sat out last season.

As if the linebacker spot wasn't thin enough, it was weakened when former Steubenville standout Branko Busick was arrested on an armed robbery charge and dismissed from the team.

That was after J.T. Thomas, a Chicago Bears draft pick, Anthony Leonard, signed as a free-agent by the New England Patriots, and Pat Lazear, all graduated.

Sophomore Doug Rigg and redshirt sophomore Tyler Anderson each saw action in all 13 games last season and redshirt junior Donovan Miles, who played a little before injuring an ankle, are also in the mix.

Others are senior Casey Vance, junior Josh Francis, redshirt freshman Troy Gloster, and redshirt freshman Jewone Snow

Francis, a 2010 NJCAA first team All-American, finished a two-year career at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa., with 95 tackles, 13 sacks and 19 tackles for loss. Gloster redshirted last season. He's expected to make an immediate impact.

True freshman Shaq Petteway, another Big Red product, was, at times, running with the first-team defense during fall drills.

Terance Garvin returns at spur safety, and Eain Smith looks like he'll finally get a chance to show his stuff on a full-time basis in place of NFL Draft pick Robert Sands, now with the Cincinnati Bengals.

The defensive backfield was further depleted by the graduation of safety Sidney Glover (free-agent tryout), and Brandon Hogan, a fourth-round pick of the Carolina Panthers.

Brantwon Bowser and newcomer Avery Williams will be in the mix for playing time, along with returnees Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, the two latter owning starting experience.

Vance Roberts is a true freshman to watch along with redshirt sophomore Darwin Cook, sophomore Mike Dorsey, sophomore Travis Bell, and redshirt freshmen Wes Tonkery and Lucas Henn.

On special teams, junior Tyler Bitancurt is in a battle to keep his job after following up a superb freshman season with a so-so sophomore campaign.

Bitancurt hit 10 of 17 field-goal attempts but was perfect on all 41 extra-point attempts.

Musselman's Corey Smith is also in the picture. He could also emerge as the team's punter, if not a two-way kicker.

Holgorsen has toyed with the idea of having Austin return both kicks and punts. Austin returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown against Connecticut as a freshman in 2009, and Holgorsen feels he could handle the punt returns.

Sept. 4: Marshall3:30 p.m.

Sept. 10: Norfolk StateTBA

Sept. 17: at MarylandNoon

Sept. 24: LSU TBA

Oct. 1: Bowling GreenTBA

Oct. 8: ConnecticutTBA

Oct. 21: at Syracuse8 p.m.

Oct. 29: at Rutgers TBA

Nov. 5: LouisvilleTBA

Nov. 12: at CincinnatiTBA

Nov. 25: Pitt TBA

Dec. 1: at USF8 p.m


Win 10, Lose 2