By JIM ELLIOTT
MORGANTOWN - Last year, it was a new coach and a new offensive scheme. This year, it's a new league and a new defensive scheme.
It seems nothing ever stays the same regarding West Virginia University's football program, outside of this - everyone involved has high expectations.
In the past, the Mountaineers have handled those with stone hands, but if this team's first season in the Big 12 is going to be the kind of success most think it will - WVU is ranked No. 11 in the preseason coach's poll and was voted No. 2 in the Big 12's preseason poll - there's not a lot of margin for error.
With the glaring exception of a defense that is transforming to a new alignment and is without a lot of big-name stars, the pieces seem to be in place for the Mountaineers to make a big run in 2012.
''We addressed expectations, and we told them we're going to handle expectations like we did last year going into the Clemson game. We didn't care what you guys wrote or what the media was saying on TV,'' said WVU coach Dana Holgorsen, who was outfitted with a brand new six-year deal earlier this month. ''It's the same thing now, expectations are high which we like, but we're not going to pay attention to it. How you handle expectations is you just do your job. We talked to them about focusing hard on making themselves better on all three sides of the ball.''
Sept. 1: Marshall12 p.m.
Sept. 5: James Madison (Landover, Md.)4:30 p.m.
Sept. 22: MarylandTBA
Sept. 29: BaylorTBA
Oct. 6: at TexasTBA
Oct. 13: at Texas TechTBA
Oct. 20: Kansas StateTBA
Nov. 3: TCUTBA
Nov. 10: at Oklahoma StateTBA
Nov. 17: OklahomaTBA
Nov. 23: at Iowa State3:30 p.m.
Dec. 1: KansasTBA
Win 10, Lose 2
Any discussion about this season's Mountaineers begins with senior quarterback Geno Smith (6-foot-3, 214 pounds). The record-breaking righty has been identified as the preseason Offensive Player of the Year in the Big 12, and has found placement on the watch lists for the Walter Camp, and Davey O'Brien awards lists and is being mentioned as a Heisman Trophy contender.
Last season, Smith completed 346 of 526 passes for 4,385 yards, 31 touchdowns and seven interceptions in what was simply the finest passing season by a quarterback in school history.
And get this
''He's moving around better, his leadership skills are better, his communication is better, his arm strength is better and his body looks better,'' Holgorsen said of Smith. ''He's better.''
Sophomore Paul Millard (6-3, 221) is the backup QB, followed by true freshman Ford Childress (6-5, 224).
Smith has what is arguable the finest group of receivers in school history to throw to.
Leading them is the versatile Tavon Austin (5-9, 174), who found his name on three different preseason watch lists - Hornung, Walter Camp, and Biletknikoff after a season in which he caught 101 passes for 1,186 yards and eight touchdowns.
Smith's high school teammate Stedman Bailey (5-10, 193) wasn't far behind with 72 catches for 1,279 yards and 12 touchdowns. Finishing out the Big 3 is Ivan McCartney, another of Smith's Miramar High School teammates who had 49 catches for 585 yards and three touchdowns. Those guys steal the headlines, but this position is very deep, continuing with redshirt senior J.D. Woods inside, and backups like redshirt freshman K.J. Myers, freshman Jordan Thompson, redshirt senior Ryan Nehlen (listed as the starter on the preseason two-deep ahead of McCartney), redshirt freshman Dante Campbell, and former George Washington standout Cody Clay. Among those providing further depth is former Madonna standout Connor Arlia, who is back from an injury he sustained prior to the Orange Bowl.
Holgorsen mentioned freshmen Devonte Robinson, Devonte Mathis, Will Johnson and Travares Copeland were getting quite a bit of reps, and they would play if they're good enough, but ideally, they'd be redshirted.
''We know that we have a chance to do some pretty big things,'' Bailey said.
''We will have a lot opportunities on the table. We are just ready to go out there and have some fun.''
The running game wasn't necessarily a strength last season, though more times than not in a 10-3 season, it showed up when it was needed.
Then-true freshman Dustin Garrison (5-9, 166) burst on the scene by leading the team with 742 yards and six touchdowns on 136 carries, but he injured his knee in the days leading up to the Orange Bowl and is working his way back up the depth chart.
On top of that chart is senior Shawne Alston (5-11, 235), who rushed for 416 yards and 12 touchdowns on 97 carries a season ago. Sophomore Andrew Buie (5-9, 187) added 172 yards and a touchdown. The punishing Ryan Clarke (6-0, 231) and Donovan Miles, who moved over from the defensive side, are the fullbacks.
Alston said WVU will be able to keep the ball on the ground - when it makes sense.
''We can definitely run the ball, but we just have so many playmakers out there,'' he said. ''When you have Tavon and Stedman out there, you have to give them the opportunity to make plays. At the same time, we will get our fair amount of carries.''
The Mountaineers are in good shape on the offensive line with three seniors in the middle - center Joe Madsen (6-4, 310) and guards Josh Jenkins (6-4, 194), and Jeff Braun (6-4, 321).
Big things are expected for Madsen, who is on the watch lists for both the Rimington and Lombardi Awards. Jenkins, a Parkersburg native, redshirted last season after injuring a knee in the spring game, but is back for a fifth year with a bunch of experience under his belt.
On the outside are tackles Pat Eger (6-6, 301) and Quinton Spain (6-5, 335). Redshirt junior Nick Kindler (6-6, 298), redshirt freshman Brandon Jackson (6-3, 326), redshirt freshman Russell Haughton-James (6-5, 316), redshirt junior Curtis Feigt (6-7, 316), redshirt freshman Marquis Lucas (6-4, 317), and true freshmen Tyler Orlosky (6-4, 290) and Adam Pankey (6-5, 324) were gaining notice from the coaching staff.
That's a lot of names, and a luxury the Mountaineers didn't have last season. They'll likely need them.
''My experience is we are going to play more snaps (in the Big 12), so we have to play more people,'' Holgorsen said. ''We are preparing ourselves for that.''
West Virginia's defense is transitioning from the 3-3-5 favored by former coordinator Jeff Casteel to a 3-4 under new co-defensive coordinators Keith Patterson and Joe DeForest.
''It wasn't really that hard of a change,'' said defensive end Will Clarke, a redshirt junior who is primed for a breakout season. ''Guys have transitioned into the new scheme pretty easily. We have just been trying to master the new defense. We have just been using our technique and going over different disguises we will be using in games.''
Clarke says he and his defensive mates know from the start they won't have to try to pitch shutouts every time out.
''It will be a dual effort,'' he said. ''If we are going to win, it has to come from both sides. The offense will need to step up, and the defense will need to step up.''
Joining Clarke (6-6, 269) along the line are redshirt senior nose tackle Jorge Wright (6-2, 289), and redshirt junior (and walk-on from Morgantown) Tyler Anderson (6-2, 244) with redshirt senior J.B. Lageman (6-3, 272), redshirt freshman Kyle Rose (6-4, 270), freshman Imarjay Albury (6-0, 292), redshirt junior Shaq Rowell (6-4, 300) and redshirt sophomore Tyler Demko (6-6, 256) all on the preseason three-deep.
The linebacker position one is an important one in the 3-4, and it involves a completely different set of responsibilities that those in the 3-3-5.
Senior Josh Francis (6-1, 221) for one, likes it.
''The 3-3-5 is a defense that engages you with linemen a lot,'' he said. ''I never engaged with linemen on every single play like I did last year. With this defense, you have a little more freedom. You are able to show off your craft. This defense and these coaches allow you to showcase your abilities on every snap.''
Francis will be joined by the likes of redshirt sophomore Jewone Snow (6-1, 245), sophomore Jared Barber (6-0, 230), and junior Doug Rigg (6-0, 242). At the Star linebacker position, a few safeties have moved up in senior Terence Garvin (6-3, 223) and Steubenville's Shaq Petteway (6-0, 222), a sophomore. Other linebackers are redshirt sophomore Wes Tonkery (6-2, 214), redshirt freshman Nick Kwiatkoski (6-2, 226), redshirt junior Taige Redman (6-1, 228), redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce (6-1, 226) and redshirt sophomore Troy Gloster (5-11, 230).
Redshirt junior Brodrick Jenkins (5-10, 184) and senior Pat Miller (5-10, 191) are the only players on the roster with starting experience at cornerback. They'll be joined by redshirt senior Lawrence Smith (5-9, 182), redshirt senior Cecil Level (5-10, 186), sophomore Avery Williams (5-11, 186), redshirt freshman Terrell Chestnut (5-11, 185), and redshirt sophomore Anthony Vecchio (5-9, 182).
Three freshmen - Nana Kyeremeh, Brandon Napoleon, and Ricky Rumph - have also gotten looks, according to cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts.
''Knowing that we're going to a pass-happy league and knowing that we're going to have to run down the field quite a bit, some of the young guys will play,'' Roberts said. ''In this league, you have to be deep at corner.''
The safeties are redshirt junior Darwin Cook (5-11, 204), with junior Travis Bell (6-2, 201), redshirt sophomore Ishmael Banks (6-0, 184), senior Matt Moro (6-0, 192), and redshirt senior William Marable (6-0, 198), with freshman Karl Joseph (5-10, 196) and K.J. Dillon (-2, 185) screaming up the depth chart.
Tyler Bitancurt, a preseason Groza Watch List honoree, is back at kicker, with punter Corey Smith his backup. Michael Molinari is the backup punter.