Big East Preview, Part 6

This is the sixth in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at a West Virginia program trying to maintain the momentum of its shocking second place Big East finish last year. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.


Reports out of West Virginia indicate that Head Coach Rich Rodriguez's dogs is alive and well.  That is reassuring because after I predicted a 2-10 season for the Mountaineers last year, one fan suggested that Rodriguez might want to keep his dog inside if he won only two games.  The natives would have been restless.  Rodriguez's dog is sleeping well after a surprising 9-4 (6-1 Big East) season that ended with a 48-22 loss to Virginia in the Continental Tire Bowl. 

Changes in offensive and defensive philosophies were instrumental to the turnaround.  Rodriguez altered his spread offense to focus upon the running abilities of his TB and QB rather than emphasizing a passing game he lacked the weapons to feature.  Rodriguez also added formations using a FB and TEs, who were noticeably absent from the offense in 2001.  The result was a ball control offense that monopolized the football and kept the scoring pace at a manageable level.  Rodriguez also hired a new defensive coordinator who implemented a new system.  The 3-3 stack defense did not use three safeties at a third level, as the name might imply.  Rather, two safeties were used near the line of scrimmage as hybrid OLBs, giving the defense a "3-5" look.  The switch solidified a previously porous run defense without unduly exposing the secondary. 

In his third season, Rodriguez now possesses a roster that he has primarily recruited.  That should result in an increased emphasis on the passing game.  Rodriguez lost 12 starters plus one kicker from a team that really overachieved and realized accomplishments that could not have been fantasized for several more years. 


West Virginia lost 6 starters from a not surprisingly one-dimensional spread offense that was uncharacteristically run-oriented: 

  • 31 points per game (#3 in the Big East and #33 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 419 yards per game (#2 in the Big East and #18 in Division 1A)
  • 284 rushing yards per game (#1 in the Big East and #2 in Division 1A)
  • 135 passing yards per game (#8 in the Big East and #108 in Division 1A)

The Mountaineers have been devastated by the loss of four-time All-Big East (twice as Fist Team, including last season) RB Avon Cobourne (335 carries for 1,710 yards and 17 TDs plus 15 receptions for 146 yards), who was the centerpiece of the Mountaineer offense.  Cobourne thrived as both a TB in the "I" formation and as the "superback" in Rodriguez's spread formation.  Consistent production was the trademark of Cobourne's career.  RS Sr RB Quincy Wilson (140 carries for 901 yards and 6 TDs plus 8 receptions for 36 yards) will start after serving as Cobourne's apprentice for two years.  Wilson finished 8th in the Big East in rushing despite playing behind Cobourne.  Converted FB RS Jr Hikee Johnson, JUCO transfer Jr Kay-Jay Harris – a former Miami recruit and minor league baseball player – RS Fr Erick Phillips, and RS Fr Bryan Wright will compete for the backup RB slot behind Wilson.  The FB returned to the West Virginia offense last season in a part-time role.  Former walk-on Sr FB Moe Fofana is a bruising blocking back who had only four touches last season.  RS Sr FB Chris King will backup Fofana.  The experience of Quincy Wilson should ease the loss of Cobourne and Rodriguez has plenty of RBs fighting for carries so he should continue to rely heavily upon his RBs, as he did last season.  

RS Jr QB Rasheed Marshall (139 of 259 for 1,616 yards, 9 TDs, and 5 INTs plus 173 carries for 666 yards and 13 TDs) returns as a duel threat more prone to run than to pass.  Marshall did not develop as a passer last season as did fellow dual threat QBs Rod Rutherford of Pittsburgh and Bryan Randall of Virginia Tech.  However, Marshall broke Michael Vick's Big East QB season rushing record.  Backup QB Danny Embick transferred to Florida Atlantic.  RS So QB Charles Hales, JUCO transfer who redshirted last season, will backup Marshall.  West Virginia's prospects will hinge heavily upon Marshall's development as a passer. 

West Virginia lost three starters off an OLine that developed into one of the very best in the Big East – First Team All-Big East and two-year starter LT Lance Nimmo, Second Team All-Big East and two year starter LG Ken Sandor, and two-year starter C Zach Dillow.  The Mountaineers also unexpectedly lost two backup OL as RS So Rod Olds transferred to the Florida A&M last spring and RS So Justin Williams quit the team before summer camp.  Two-year starter RS Sr RT Tim Brown and RS Jr LT Jeff Berk, who was moved from RG, will anchor the rebuilt OLine.  Former backups RS Sr C Ben Simmons and RS Sr RG Geoff Lewis will move into the starting lineup, as will RS Fr LG Dan Mozes.  JUCO Jr LT Mike Watson, who briefly quit the team during summer camp, is the only experienced backup.  RS So RT Josh Stewart, RS Fr RG Jeremy Sheffey, RS Fr C Jeremy Hines, and RS Fr LG Travis Garrett – none of whom have any experience – complete the second unit.  Attrition has continued to hamper the development of depth on the Mountaineer OLine.  Rodriguez has nearly run out of bodies to plug holes in his depth chart and likely will again resort to an 8-man OLine rotation. 

Two years into the implementation of Rodriguez's spread offense, West Virginia still lacks talent at WR.  Since WR is one position where young players can contribute early, it was not unreasonable to expect an influx of young talent at WR as Rodriguez recruited receivers more suited to his offensive system.  However, that hasn't happened and only natural attrition has turned over the composition of the receiving corps.  West Virginia lost two starters – WR Phil Braxton (20 receptions for 379 yards and 2 TDs) and WR Derrick Smith (15 receptions for 198 yards) from its 3WR starting lineup.  Backup WRs Mike Page (7 receptions) and AJ Nastasi (4 receptions) also have departed.  Leading receiver Jr WR Miquelle Henderson (40 receptions for 496 yards and 2 TDs), still recovering from broken ankle suffered in spring camp, returns to provide some stability to an otherwise unstable unit.  Sr WR Aaron Neal and RS Jr WR John Pennington will likely start as well.  RS Sr WR Travis Garvin, RS So Dee Alston, and So WR Chris Henry, who was academically ineligible last season, will serve as backups.  RS Sr TE Tory Johnson (6 receptions for 45 yards and 2 TDs) returns in a part-time role, primarily in short yardage situations.  RS So TE Josh Bailey (8 receptions for 110 yards and one TD) will backup Johnson.  With only one WR who averaged at least one reception per game last season, the receiving corps only heightens the uncertainty over the Mountaineer passing game. 


West Virginia lost 7 starters – all from the front eight – off a redesigned defense that improved a porous rush defense by nearly 100 yards per game:

  • 23 points per game (#5 in the Big East and #40 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 336 yards per game (#5 in the Big East and #33 in Division 1A)
  • 122 rushing yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #30 in Division 1A)
  • 214 passing yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #55 in Division 1A)

While the secondary yielded nearly 100 passing yards per game more than did the nation's top secondary in 2001, the secondary contributed substantially to the Mountaineer's improved run defense.  West Virginia lost two starters from in the secondary – Second Team All-Big East, two-year starter, and second leading tackler SS Angel Estrada (114 tackles, 9.5 TFLs, 5 sacks and 2 INTs) and WS Jermaine Thaxton (79 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2 INTs, and 2 FF).  Backup WS Arthur Harrison (37 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 FR) and backup CB Lewis Daniels (36 tackles) also departed.  Starting FS Jr Jahmile Addae (94 tackles and 4 INTs) returns, as do both starting CBs, RS Sr CB Lance Frazier (48 tackles) and RS Sr CB Brian King (76 tackles and 3 INTs).  The Mountaineers also return experienced backups in So CB Adam Jones (36 tackles) and Jr CB Thandi Smith (10 tackles).  So WS Mike Lorello (6 tackles), moved from backup FS, and Sr SS Leandre Washington (36 tackles and 3 TFLs), a converted WLB, will replace Thaxton and Estrada, respectively.  RS So FS Anthony Mims and RS Jr SS Mike Henshaw (9 tackles) will backup Addae and Washington, respectively, while RS Jr Jerry White and RS Jr Lawrence Audena will compete to backup Washington, who will also play WLB.  The 3-3 stack defense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the safeties, who must balance aggressive run support with pass coverage – conflicting assignments that require experience to reconcile.  West Virginia lacks that experience. 

West Virginia lost two starters off the heart of its defense – Second Team All-Big East, two-year starter, and third leading tackler WLB James Davis (112 tackles, 14 TFLs, 4 sacks, and 2 FF) and starting MLB Ben Collins (98 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 4 FR).  However, three-year starter, First Team All-Big East, former Big East Rookie of the Year, and leading tackler RS Sr SLB Grant Wiley (122 tackles, 12 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, and 2 FF) returns as the leader of the defense.  RS Jr MLB Adam Lehnortt (57 tackles and 3 TFLs) will replace Collins.  Sr Leandre Washington will rotate between SS and WLB, with RS So Mo Howard (13 tackles) and RS Fr Kevin McLee filling in at WLB.  Jr SLB Scott Gyorko (32 tackles) and RS So MLB Alex Lake (13 tackles) will backup Wiley and Lehnortt, respectively.  Rodriguez is fortunate to have Wiley stabilizing influence on an otherwise completely rebuilt eight-man front.  

West Virginia lost all three starters – Second Team All-Big East and two-year starter NT David Upchurch (38 tackles and 14 TFLs), two-year starter DE Jason Davis (27 tackles), and DE Tim Love (27 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 2 sacks) – plus backup DE Kevin Freeman (27 tackles, 3.5 TFLs, 2 FF, and 2 FR) from the DLine.  RS So NT Ernest Hunter (8 tackles), who missed half of last season with a broken leg, will replace Upchurch.  Sr DE Fred Blueford (13 tackles and 3 sacks) and RS Jr DE Ben Lynch (11 tackles) will flank Hunter.  RS Fr DE Warren Young, RS Fr NT Craig Wilson, and true Fr DE Pat Liebig, a spring 2003 enrollee, will provide a very green second unit.  The DLine is very young, inexperienced, and thin.  West Virginia likely will not be as successful in stopping opposing rushing offenses with the DLine can't keep the OLine off the LBs and safeties. 


Three year starter and former two-time Second Team All-Big East P Mark Fazzolari (37 yards per punt) and KOR Phil Braxton (24 yards per return) departed.  RS Sr Brian King and So Adam Jones will compete for KOR responsibilities.  RS So Brad Cooper, a transfer from Middle Tennessee, will displace former starter Sr Todd James (11 of 16 FGAs and 46 of 50 XPAs) as the placekicker.  James will instead handle punting duties, as he did two years ago when he averaged 41 yards per punt.  RS Sr PR Lance Frazier (7 yards per return) will again return punts.  With both the offense and defense having suffered such heavy losses, the Mountaineer special teams will need a big year to help West Virginia stay in the first division of the Big East. 


West Virginia has a full 12 game schedule with 7 home games.  The Mountaineers play once on a Thursday night – at Miami – and once on a Wednesday night – against Virginia Tech.  Both occur after bye weeks.  In a rebuilding year, the Mountaineers face a brutal non-conference schedule with three bowl teams – Wisconsin, Cincinnati, and Maryland – plus a road trip to East Carolina.  The schedule is daunting because all but one swing games – Cincinnati at home – are on the road.  The road schedule offers three challenging opportunities at East Carolina, at Boston College, and at Syracuse.  West Virginia propelled itself to a second place Big East finish with an undefeated conference road record.  West Virginia will need a comparable level of success away from the cozy confines of Morgantown to earn a second consecutive bowl bid. 


August 30


September 6

@ East Carolina

September 14


September 20

@ Maryland

October 2

@ Miami

October 11


October 22

Virginia Tech

November 1

Central Florida

November 8

@ Boston College

November 15


November 22

@ Syracuse

November 29





I predict West Virginia will finish at 4-8 (2-5).  This young bunch of Mountaineers will not be the road warriors that were their immediate predecessors.  The twin hazards of inexperience and insufficient depth will handicap West Virginia, especially on the road.  Wisconsin, Maryland, Miami, Virginia Tech, and Pittsburgh are well beyond the reach of West Virginia this year.  New Head Coach John Thompson will quickly have East Carolina again tough in Greenville, where the Mountaineers will succumb in their first road game.  A loss to East Carolina will increase the importance of the immediately following game against Cincinnati, where West Virginia will leverage its running game and home field advantage to a win, narrowly avoiding an ugly 0-5 start.  West Virginia will further ride its home field advantage to victories over Rutgers, Central Florida, and Temple.  However, the Mountaineers will lose their final road games at Boston College and Syracuse to finish winless on the road.  And out of bowl contention. 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 7.  I'll finish my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at disintegrating Temple.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 

Please send any comments to  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.

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