Big East Preview -- Part 1

This is the first in a six part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll begin my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the defending co-champion West Virginia Mountaineers. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS PREVIEW


If West Virginia Head Coach Rich Rodriguez operated a chain of shitburger stands, I think I would be his #1 customer.  Because Rich loves feeding them to me.  In each of the past two years, I've predicted poor seasons for West Virginia – 2-10 in 2002 and 4-8 last year.  Both years, West Virginia threw my predictions back in my face, posting consecutive 6-1 conference records – good enough for runner-up in 2002 and co-champions in 2003.  Last season, Rodriguez had to almost completely rebuild his OLine with very young players while also replacing seven starters off his eight-man defensive front.  Not surprisingly, the Mountaineers stumbled out of the gate in their non-conference schedule but unexpectedly rebounded to win their final seven regular season games.  West Virginia finished 8-4 (6-1 Big East) but again ended the season with a disappointing bowl performance in losing 41-7 to Maryland in the Gator Bowl.  OK, I've learned my lesson.  Rodriguez has earned my respect as a very good head coach.  He has retooled West Virginia on the fly, adjusting his systems to fit his talent instead of forcing his players to run systems they aren't suited to operate. 

West Virginia runs offensive and defensive systems that are very unique in the Big East.  Rodriguez employs a spread offense that is actually geared towards a rushing attack.  So much so that Rodriguez has reduced the emphasis upon 4 WR formations.  Instead, Rodriguez uses mostly 3WR formations with a TE, FB, or a second RB.  The Mountaineer offense tends to be very one-dimensional but nonetheless has big play capability through the air (16 yards per completion).  The 3-3 stack defense is really a "3-5" scheme with two safeties near the line of scrimmage as hybrid OLBs.  Despite being undersized, the eight-man front is very effective against the run but, with CBs in man-to-man coverage backstopped by a single deep safety, is vulnerable to the pass.  While both the offense and defense are mediocre in terms of total yardage, an outstanding TO differential (both TOs committed and recovered) magnified the effectiveness of each unit, whose scoring (for and against) was disproportionately much better than their total yardage (gained and allowed).  In their fourth season (third with this defense under Rodriguez), the Mountaineers have sufficiently acclimated to the new systems to maintain performance even while overhauling the roster.  Rodriguez returns 16 starters plus one kicker off of a very young team.  With the departure of Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, West Virginia has an opportunity to garner national attention and a BCS berth this season. 


OFFENSE

West Virginia lost 2 starters from a one-dimensional spread offense that is uniquely run-oriented: 

  • 213 rushing yards per game (#1 among current Big East and #13 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 157 passing yards per game (#7 among current Big East and #105 in Division 1A)
  • 369 yards per game (#6 among current Big East and #72 in Division 1A)
  • 29 points per game (#3 among current Big East and #40 in Division 1A)


West Virginia returns intact a very young OLine that grew up quickly last year and also welcomes back a former starter who missed last season with an injury.  The Mountaineers did lose two backups – C Ben Timmons and LG Geoff Lewis.  Two-year starter and Second Team All-Big East RS Sr RG Jeff Berk and former two-year starter RS Sr RT Tim Brown, returning after missing last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon, will anchor the left side of the OLine.  Freshman All-American RS So LG Dan Mozes and Sr LT Mike Watson will man the right side.  RS So C Jeremy Hines will call the signals in the middle.  Former starter RS So RT Garin Justice will backup Brown this season.  Backups RS So RG Jeremy Sheffey, RS So LG Travis Garrett, and RS Jr LT Josh Stewart return.  RS Fr C Hampton Rose will likely backup Hines as the only new face on the OLine.  Desperately short of experienced OL one year ago, West Virginia is now awash in them with an experienced two-deep to pave the way for the potent Mountaineer running game. 

Two-year starter and Second Team All-Big East RS Sr QB Rasheed Marshall (109 of 215 for 1,729 yards, 15 TDs, and 8 INTs plus 101 carries for 303 yards and 4 TDs) returns as a duel threat triggerman.  Initially more of a thrower rather than a passer, Marshall was more of a threat with his feet than with his arm.  However, last year Marshall became more of a passer as his rushing yardage decreased while his passing yardage increased.  Although Marshall broke Michael Vick's Big East QB season rushing record as a sophomore and is on a pace to break Donovan McNabb's QB career rushing record, Rodriguez seems less willing to expose his slight QB to the punishment associated with frequent carries.  RS Jr QB Charles Hales (20 of 35 for 305 yards and 4 TDs plus 19 carries for 67 yards) will resume his backup role this season.  The emergence of Hales has made West Virginia less dependent upon Marshall to direct its offense.  That may free Rodriguez to let his QBs run more often. 

The Mountaineers lost a First Team All-Big East RB for the second year in a row with the departure of 7th round NFL draft pick Quincy Wilson (282 carries for 1,380 yards and 12 TDs plus 15 receptions for 95 yards and another TD), who was the workhorse of the Mountaineer offense.  Sr RB Kay-Jay Harris (91 carries for 524 yards and 4 TDs plus 5 receptions for 111 yards), who started alongside Wilson in part-time 2RB role, will assume the primary RB role this year.  Harris finished 9th in the Big East in rushing.  RS So Jason Colson (56 carries for 235 yards and 3 TDs plus 3 receptions for 9 yards), the #3 RB last season, will slide into the 2RB role alongside Harris.  RS So Erick Phillips (18 carries for 65 yards), who is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery last fall, and RS So Bryan Wright (5 carries for 24 yards) will battle for the third RB spot.  The FB has a part-time role in the Mountaineer spread offense.  FB Moe Fofana, a blocking back who didn't touch the ball, also departed.  RS Sr FB Hikee Johnson will replace Fofana.  The experience of a better-conditioned Harris should ease the loss of Wilson and Rodriguez has plenty of RBs fighting for carries so he should continue to rely heavily upon his RBs, as he done for a few years now.  

Three years after Rodriguez implemented the spread offense at West Virginia, the Mountaineers inexplicably still lack depth at WR.  West Virginia lost starting 3WR Travis Garvin (17 receptions for 306 yards and 2 TDs), backup TE Tory Johnson (3 receptions for 37 yards), and backup WR Aaron Neal (7 receptions for 76 yards) from its 3WR starting lineup.  Leading receiver Second Team All-Big East and Big East Rookie of the Year Jr WR Chris Henry (41 receptions for 1,006 yards and 10 TDs) gives Rodriguez a home threat to complement his ground attack.  Two-year starter Sr WR Miquelle Henderson (18 receptions for 209 yards and 2 TDs) is the possession receiver.  Sr WR Eddie Jackson, a transfer from Washington, will likely start as the 3WR.  RS Sr WR John Pennington (7 receptions for 71 yards), RS Jr Dee Alston (8 receptions for 83 yards), and true Fr WR Darius Reynaud will likely serve as backups.  RS Jr TE Josh Bailey will replace Johnson in the part-time role.  Rodriguez is slowly building talent at WR but needs more than one new face to emerge so that he can also develop some depth. 


DEFENSE

West Virginia lost 4 starters off a defense that yielded yardage but not points:

  • 132 rushing yards per game (#2 among current Big East and #34 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 260 passing yards per game (#7 among current Big East and #104 in Division 1A)
  • 391 yards per game (#5 among current Big East and #74 in Division 1A)
  • 23 points per game (#1 among current Big East and #44 in Division 1A)


West Virginia returns intact its starting DLine – RS Jr DE Ernest Hunter (42 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks, and 2 FR), RS Sr NT Ben Lynch (64 tackles, 11.5 TFLs, and 2 sacks), and RS Sr DE Jason Hardee (39 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 6 sacks).  Backup DE Fred Blueford (22 tackles) departed and backup DE Pat Liebig (10 tackles) will likely miss the season while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.  Backup NT RS So Craig Wilson (18 tackles and 2 TFLs) also returns.  RS So DE Warren Young (3 tackles) and JUCO transfer Jr DE Joe Sykes will likely complete the second unit.  The DLine, very young and inexperienced a year ago, nonetheless showed outstanding playmaking ability and will anchor the defense this year. 

West Virginia lost the heart of its defense – First Team All-American, two-time First Team All-Big East, four-year starter, former Big East Rookie of the Year, and leading tackler SLB Grant Wiley (167 tackles, 14 TFLs, 2 INTs, and 7 FF).  Second leading tackler RS Sr MLB Adam Lehnortt (139 tackles, 13 TFLs, 5 sacks, and 2 FR) and third leading tackler Sr WLB Scott Gyorko (119 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 2 FF) return to anchor the LB unit.  Former backup MLB RS So Kevin McLee (46 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2. 5 sacks, and 2 FF) will replace Wiley as the starting SLB.  Backup SLB RS So SLB Jay Henry (38 tackles) also returns but backup WLB Alex Lake (19 tackles) quit the team before spring camp.  RS Fr MLB Marc Magro and RS Fr WLB Bobby Hathaway will likely move into backup roles.  The departure of Wiley leaves a gaping hole in the defense but Rodriguez is fortunate to have an experienced LB unit to pick up the slack.    

An injury in the season opener forced Defensive Coordinator Jeff Casteel to shuffle the secondary at the outset of the season.  The Mountaineer secondary was kept on its heels by opposing offenses but countered with a flurry of forced TOs that kept opponents at bay.  West Virginia lost three starters from the secondary:  two-and-a-half-year starter and First Team All-Big East FS Brian King (118 tackles, 2 TFLS, and 6 INTs), who switched from CB after Game 1; two-and-a-half-year starter CB Lance Frazier (67 tackles, 5 TFLs, 5 INTs, 4 FF, and 2 FRs).  and SS Leandre Washington (70 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 2 FF).  Second Team All-Big East Jr CB Pac-Man Jones (93 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, 4 INTs, and 2 FR), who replaced King at CB, returns.  Former backup CB RS Jr Anthony Mims (45 tackles) will replace Frazier opposite Jones.  Former starting WS Jr Mike Lorello (106 tackles and 13 TFLs) will replace Washington at SS while former backup WS RS Sr Lawrence Audena (25 tackles and 3 TFLs) moves into the starting WS role vacated by Lorello.  Former starting FS RS Jr Jahmile Addae returns after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in Game 1.  RS Sr SS Mike Henshaw (10 tackles) and RS Sr WS Jerry White (17 tackles) will return as backups.  The next generation of defensive backs appears to be poised to assume backup duties this year – RS Fr FS Vince Beamer, RS Fr CB Larry Williams, and RS Fr CB Davonzo Tate.  The 3-3 stack defense puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the CBs, who are isolated in man-to-man coverage on the perimeter, and the FS, who is the centerfielder.   These players must continue to make plays to offset their vulnerability against the pass – three players defend a lot of green. 


SPECIAL TEAMS

P Todd James (41 yards per punt) and part-time PR Lance Frazier (21 yards per return and one TD) departed.  Part-time PR Jr Pac-Man Jones (6 yards per return) will likely assume all PR duties this year.  Jones (26 yards per return and one TD) and Sr Kay-Jay Harris (22 yards per return) will likely share KOR duties again this season.  RS Jr PK Brad Cooper (11 of 18 FGAs and 46 of 48 XPAs) also returns.  RS Jr P Phil Brady, a transfer from East Carolina, and So Eric P Daugherty will compete for the punting job.  As with the rest of the team, special teams are experienced.  The kicking game is tremendously important for West Virginia as a complement to its ball control offense. 


SCHEDULE

West Virginia has an 11 game schedule with six home games.  The Mountaineers play twice on Thursday – at night against Syracuse and at Pittsburgh for the Backyard Brawl on Thanksgiving – and once on a Wednesday night – at Connecticut.  Two midweek games occur back-to-back after a bye week; the third occurs after another bye week.  The Mountaineers face a moderate non-conference schedule with only two bowl teams – Maryland and at Virginia Tech.  The conference schedule is favorable with the Mountaineers hosting their most formidable opponent (Boston College) and avoiding the most inhospitable road venue (the Carrier Dome).  The home schedule features only two challenging games – against Maryland and Boston College.  The road schedule is much more challenging but nonetheless surmountable, with no pushovers and no giants.  West Virginia visits Central Florida, Virginia Tech, Connecticut, Rutgers, and Pittsburgh.  Although the last two weeks of the season hold the key to a BCS bowl – with games against Boston College and at Pittsburgh, the key stretch of the schedule with regard to national respect occurs with Maryland and Virginia Tech sandwiching James Madison.  As in each of the past two seasons, West Virginia's success will be dependent upon winning on the road.  The Mountaineers have performed impressively within the Big East during the past two seasons but have been obliterated in non-conference games, including bowl games.  The reputation of West Virginia – as well as the New Big East – depends upon the Mountaineers improving its non-conference record. 

 

September 4

East Carolina

September 11

@ Central Florida

September 18

Maryland

September 25

James Madison

October 2

@ Virginia Tech

October 13

@ Connecticut

October 21

Syracuse

October 30

@ Rutgers

November 6

Temple

November 13

Boston College

November 25

@ Pittsburgh

 

 

PREDICTION

I predict West Virginia will finish at 10-1 (6-0).  Wow!  I can't believe I just said that.  But I think the Mountaineers are more than just the best team in a bad conference.  The Mountaineers are tough, experienced, and confident.  Over the past two seasons, they have won games at Boston College, at Pittsburgh, at Syracuse, and at Virginia Tech.  They took Miami down to the final minutes in the Orange Bowl.  That kind of experience gives them a chance in almost any game.  Even on the road.  West Virginia doesn't have any easy road games but none are out of their reach either.  West Virginia will ride its running game to victories at Central Florida, at Virginia Tech, at Connecticut, at Rutgers, and at Pittsburgh.  Each of these five teams struggled against the run last year.  That plays to West Virginia's strength.  The running game will carry the Mountaineers to a win in Orlando.  West Virginia has proven tougher than Virginia Tech in their recent meetings.  West Virginia will simply wear down the media darling Huskies.  Experience will be the difference over Rutgers.  Pittsburgh lost too much off a team that West Virginia manhandled last year. 

Home games against rebuilding East Carolina, DIAA James Madison, and Temple should prove easy exercises for the veteran Mountaineers.  West Virginia will also beat Boston College comfortably in Morgantown, as it usually does.  And declining Syracuse is not a threat outside the Carrier Dome.  While overcoming a tough road schedule, West Virginia will suffer its only loss in Morgantown, where the Mountaineers are so formidable.  However, Maryland Coach Ralph Friedgen has had Rich Rodriguez's number.  The Terrapin dominance will continue as Maryland, with a more versatile offense and a better defense, will beat the Mountaineers again. 

Both Boston College and Pittsburgh are rebuilding and aren't strong enough to seriously challenge the more experienced Mountaineers for the Big East crown.  Despite a 10-1 record against a tough schedule, West Virginia won't get enough respect in the polls to get a chance to play for the national championship.  Other one-loss teams will outrank West Virginia.  The Mountaineers will have to settle for another BCS bowl.  The Orange Bowl, which usually takes the Big East champion, is hosting the national championship game.  Since Big 12 champion Oklahoma will play in the Orange Bowl for the national championship, Fiesta Bowl – which normally hosts the Big 12 champ – will select West Virginia as its host team.  The Mountaineers will play the Texas Longhorns, one of two at-large teams.
 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 2.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at enigmatic Pittsburgh.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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