Big East Preview -- Part 2

This is the second 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 the rebuilding West Virginia Mountaineers. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS PREVIEW

West Virginia 8-4 (6-2 Big East) let a golden opportunity slip through its fingers last year.  The Mountaineers were clearly the strongest, most experienced team in a weakened Big East in transition.  Miami and Virginia Tech were gone.  Temple was still around.  And Connecticut arrived a year early.  Pittsburgh and Syracuse were in decline.  And Boston College was uncharacteristically young and inexperienced.  A favorable schedule virtually assured West Virginia the Big East crown and automatic BCS bowl berth.  And an outside chance at the national championship.  But after overachieving for two years, West Virginia got a little complacent and slipped into a four-way tie for the Big East title.  A 1-2 record against their peers left West Virginia on the wrong end of the tiebreaker.  West Virginia settled for a second consecutive Gator Bowl appearance, which the Mountaineers lost 30-18 to Florida State.  Head Coach Rich Rodriguez has suffered heavy losses and will have to retool his offense, quite possibly much differently from what he has operated in recent years. 

West Virginia runs offensive and defensive systems that are very unique in the Big East.  Rodriguez employs a spread offense that has been geared primarily towards a rushing attack.  So much so that Rodriguez virtually eliminated the 4WR formation that was the base set for his offense when he arrived in Morgantown.  Instead, Rodriguez has added TEs and FBs to his roster and has used mostly 3WR formations with a TE, FB, or even a second RB.  However, Rodriquez is not wed to the ground attack.  He has merely tailored his spread offense to the strengths of his personnel – a bevy of good RBs, weak WRs, and a fleet-footed QB with a strong arm but questionable accuracy.  The Mountaineer's 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 can be very effective against the run, especially to the outside.  But, with CBs in man-to-man coverage backstopped by a single deep safety, the secondary is vulnerable to the pass.  With the arrival of Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida, West Virginia – with a rebuilt roster – is going to be pressed to defend their position as the top dog in the Big East.    

OFFENSE

West Virginia lost 9 starters from a one-dimensional spread offense that was uniquely run-oriented:  

  • 253 rushing yards per game (#1 among old Big East and #7 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 166 passing yards per game (#7 among old Big East and #104 in Division 1A)
  • 419 yards per game (#2 among old Big East and #26 in Division 1A)
  • 30 points per game (#2 among old Big East and #29 in Division 1A)

The Mountaineers lost an All-Big East RB for the third year in a row with the departure of Second Team All-Big East RB Kay Jay Harris (165 carries for 959 yards and 10 TDs plus 20 receptions for 181 yards and 3 TDs), who started strongly but had an injury-plagued year.  Starting FB Hikee Johsnon, who only had one touch last year in a part-time role, also departed.  RS Jr RB Jason Colson (142 carries for 706 yards and 6 TDs plus 12 receptions for 120 yards), who shared the starting role with the oft-injured Harris, returns.  However, he will have to earn the starting job this year.  In fact, Colson also could be used in the slotback role.  So Pernell Williams (66 carries for 313 yards and 3 TDs), the #3 RB last season, will push Colson for the starting job.  RS Jr Erick Phillips, who missed last season while rehabilitating a knee injury suffered in 2003, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in the summer; his status for the season is unknown but doesn't look promising given the depth at RB.  Two true freshman will also compete for snaps at TB – Jason Gwaltney and Steve Slaton.  Former walk-on RS So FB Owen Schmitt will replace Johnson as the "starting" FB.  Rodriguez has a deep stable of RBs to power his offense and ease the burden on an inexperienced QB.  Expect to see a lot of 2RB formations from West Virginia this year.  And a lot of running.  Especially early in the year. 

West Virginia lost two starters off a veteran OLine with a combined 12 years of starting experience.  Three-year starter First Team All-Big East C Tim Brown, who was switched from RT, and two-year starter Second Team All-Big East LT Mike Watson departed.  Former two-year starter and two-time All-Big East (First Team last year though a reserve OL most of the season!) RG Jeff Berk, who was demoted in mid-season, also departed.  Backup LT Josh Stewart transferred to Division II California (Pa) and backup LG RS So Zac Napier quit the team.  Two-year starter and First Team All-Big East RS Jr LG Dan Mozes will anchor the OLine.  He will be joined by fellow returning veterans two-year starter RT Garin Justice and RS Jr RG Jeremy Sheffey, who displaced Berk and started the final seven games of the season.  Former backups RS Sr LT Travis Garrett and RS Jr C Jeremy Hines will replace Watson and Brown, respectively.  The entire second unit is comprised of redshirt freshmen – LT Chris Bassler, LG Ryan Stancheck, C Mike Dent (a converted DE), RG John Bradshaw, and RT Jake Figner.  Bassler suffered a torn ACL early in summer camp and may not play this year.  If so, Bradshaw will also serve as the backup LT.  Bradshaw will be backstopped by a few seldom-used upperclassmen – Jr LT Damien Crissey and RS Sr RG Aaron Howell.  Rodriguez still has an experienced starting OLine but the entire second team is green. 

Rodriguez lost virtually all of his experience at QB.  Three-year starter and two-time All Big East (First Team last year) QB Rasheed Marshall (144 of 242 for 1,886 yards, 19 TDs, and 9 INTs plus 169 carries for 861 yards and 4 TDs) was a duel threat triggerman.  Marshall owns the Big East single season and career QB rushing records.  Initially more of a thrower rather than a passer, Marshall improved as a passer during his three years in Morgantown.  Backup QB Charles Hales (5 of 13 for 107 yards, one TD, and 2 INTs) barely played behind Marshall and saw more time as a backup WR.  RS So QB Adam Bednarik and RS Fr QB Pat White are battling for the starting QB.  White apparently is the more mobile than Bednarik.  With less running capability than Marshall and inexperienced at passing, the Mountaineer offense may be very conservative this year as Rodriguez breaks in a rookie QB. 

Four years after Rodriguez brought a 4WR spread offense to West Virginia, the Mountaineers still can't fill a productive one-deep at WR and seem to lose receivers faster than Rodriguez develops them.  West Virginia lost two-year starter, two-time All-Big East (First Team last year) WR Chris Henry (52 receptions for 872 yards and 12 TDs), three-year starter WR Miquelle Henderson (18 receptions for 168 yards and one TD), starting 3WR Eddie Jackson (18 receptions for 246 yards), backup WR Charles Hale (6 receptions for 74 yards and one TD), backup WR John Pennington (7 receptions for 60 yards), and backup TE Ryan Thomas.  Backup WR Sr Brandon Myles (6 receptions for 138 yards and 2 TDs) and backup WR RS So Dwayne Thompson (4 receptions for 26 yards) are the most experienced returning receivers.  Myles and RS Jr WR Rayshawn Bolden are expected to be the starting outside WRs, backed up by Thompson.  So SWR Darius Reynaud, who was academically ineligible last year, and RS Jr SWR Joe Hunter will start as slot receivers.  RS So SWR Vaughn Rivers, converted DB, and true freshman SWR Jeremy Bruce will complete the receiving rotation.  Starting TE RS Sr Josh Bailey, who missed the second half of the season with an injury, was used as a blocker and not a receiver.  RS Jr TE Brad Palmer will backup Bailey.  Rodriguez has not has as little proven experience at receiver since his second season in Morgantown.   

DEFENSE

West Virginia lost 6 starters off a vastly improved defense that finished in the top third nationally: 

  • 141 rushing yards per game (#4 among old Big East and #50 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 198 passing yards per game (#2 among old Big East and #32 in Division 1A)
  • 339 yards per game (#3 among old Big East and #37 in Division 1A)
  • 21 points per game (#2 among old Big East and #28 in Division 1A)

Athough the Mountaineers lost only two starters from their secondary, the early departure of two-year starter, First Team All-Big East, All-American, 1st round NFL draft choice (Tennessee Titans), and leading tackler CB Pacman Jones (76 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 3 INTs) is a big loss.  Starting WS Lawrence Audena (61 tackles, 3 TFLs, one INT, and 3 FF) also departed.  As did backup CB Jerry White (10 tackles).  Two-year starter and First Team All-Big East RS Sr FS Jahmile Addae (59 tackles and 2 INTs) will anchor the secondary as the centerfielder.  Former starting SS Sr Mike Lorello (66 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 FRs, and one FF), who started at WS in 2003, will move back to WS to replace Audena.  Starting CB RS Sr Anthony Mims (45 tackles, 3 TFLs, and one INT) also returns.  Former backup SS Jr Eric Wicks (14 tackles and one INT) will replace Lorello as the starting SS while former backup CB Sr Dee McCann (21 tackles, 3 INTs, 2 FF, and one FR) will attempt to fill Jones' shoes.  Backup WS RS So Ridwan Malik (23 tackles) is the only returning backup off the two deep.  RS So CB Larry Williams (8 tackles, one INT, and one FF), So CB Antonio Lewis (8 tackles), RS Jr FS Abraham Jones (3 tackles), and Jr SS Akeem Jackson will complete the second team.   Rodriguez should be able to replace his losses – including Jones – but his second team is inexperienced. 

Rodriguez lost a lot of experience off his DLine.  Two-year starter First Team All-Big East NT Ben Lynch (42 tackles, 8 TFLs, and one FR) and DE Jason Hardee (33 tackles, 5 TFLs, 4 sacks, and one FR).  Backup DE JUCO Joe Sykes (4 tackles) transferred to Southern University.  Former two-year starting DE RS Sr Ernest Hunter (18 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and one INT) will move inside and replace Lynch at NT.  Former backup DE RS So Keilen Dykes (37 tackles, 6 TFLs, and 2 sacks) will replace Hunter while former backup NT RS Jr Craig Wilson (8 tackles and 2 sacks) will slide outside and replace Hardee.  Former backup DE RS So Pat Liebig (3 tackles), who missed most of the season while recovering from reconstructive knee surgery, will also move inside and backup Hunter.  RS So Andrae Wright, who missed most of last year with a fractured foot, and RS So DE Johnny Dingle, a transfer from Florida, will likely complete the second unit.  The DLine lost half of a four-man playing rotation.  The younger players will have to grow up quickly but they show promise, many of whom have missed playing time due to injury. 

West Virginia has turned over its LB corps in the past two years.  Two-year starter, Second Team All-Big East, second leading tackler MLB Adam Lehnortt (74 tackles, 12 TFLs, 3 sacks, and 2 FR) and two-year starter WLB Scott Gyorko (56 tackles, 6 TFLs, 3 sacks, and one FF) departed.  Former starting SLB RS Jr Kevin McLee (44 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, and one FR), the lone returning starter, will be switched to WLB.  Former backup WLB RS Jr Jay Henry (39 tackles, 2 TFLs, and one FR) will replace Lehnortt at MLB and former backup SLB Jeff Noechel (15 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, one INT, and one FF), a former walk-on, will replace McLee as the starting SLB.  RS So MLB Marc Magro (32 tackles) and former walk-on RS So SLB Bobby Hathaway (21 tackles) are experienced backups.  RS Fr WLB Mortty Ivy will backup McLee.  The LB unit was the weak link of the defense last year.  Rodriguez lost his top two tackles at LB but returns five experienced players.  

SPECIAL TEAMS

The departed Pacman Jones also earned First Team All-Big East and Special Teams Player of the Year honors as a PR (15 yards per return and one TD) and a KOR (23 yards per return).  PK Brad Cooper (9 of 16 FGAs and 43 of 43 XPAs) also departed.  RS Sr P Phil Brady (38 yards per punt) is the only returning specialist.  Fr PK Pat McAffee will replace Cooper.  So CB Antonio Lewis (23 yards per return on 4 KORs), RS So SWR Vaughn Rivers (21 yard per return on 2 KORs), and true Fr RB Steve Slaton will vie to the KOR duties in place of Jones.  Lewis (5 yards per return on 3 PRs), Rivers (17 yards on one PR), and RS Sr CB Anthony Mims will compete for the PR job.  Rodiguez must replace a steady PK and the league's best return man in a year when he is rebuilding his offense and defense.  

SCHEDULE

West Virginia has an 11 game schedule with six home games.  The Mountaineers play once on Sunday (@ Syracuse), twice on Wednesday (against Connecticut and at Cincinnati), and one on Thursday – against Pittsburgh for the Backyard Brawl on Thanksgiving.  The midweek games occur at the end of the schedule, with a by week preceding the set and the season finale.  West Virginia plays six 2004 bowl teams – Syracuse (Champs Sports Bowl), Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl), Louisville (Liberty Bowl champs), Connecticut (Motor City Bowl champs), Cincinnati (Fort Worth Bowl champs), and Pittsburgh (Fiesta Bowl). 

The Mountaineers face a balanced non-conference schedule with Sugar Bowl participant Virginia Tech, ACC power Maryland – who slipped last year after averaging 10 wins in Head Coach Ralph Friedgen's first three years, recently downtrodden Conference USA member East Carolina, and Division I-AA Wofford.  The conference schedule is favorable with the Mountaineers hosting their most formidable opponents (Louisville and Pittsburgh) but includes the inhospitable Carrier Dome in the season opener at Syracuse for the rebuilt Mountaineers.  The home schedule is loaded with challenges as Virginia Tech, Louisville, and Pittsburgh come calling.  The road schedule is likewise challenging (@ Syracuse and @ Maryland) but also dangerous (@ Rutgers and @ South Florida) for a young team.  With so many challenging games on the slate, there really is no key stretch in the schedule.  West Virginia opens the schedule with big games in four of its first seven games, in alternating weeks (big game, easy game, big game).  If the Mountaineers stumble early, it could be an ugly season.  Conversely, if West Virginia can find the wherewithal to win on the road, the Mountaineers have a chance at the Big East title.  

September 4

@ Syracuse

September 10

Wofford

September 17

@ Maryland

September 24

East Carolina

October 1

Virginia Tech

October 8

@ Rutgers

October 15

Louisville

October 22

@ South Florida

November 2

Connecticut

November 9

@ Cincinnati

November 24

Pittsburgh

 

PREDICTION

I predict West Virginia will finish at 7-4 (5-2), which will be a good season considering the challenging schedule for a rebuilt team.  The Mountaineers will struggle early on the road at Syracuse and Maryland and then at home with Virginia Tech and Louisville.  West Virginia will lose each of these four big games, mixing wins against Wofford, East Carolina, and Rutgers in between.  The Mountaineers will hit the easiest stretch in their schedule with wins against South Florida, Connecticut, and Cincinnati.  The growing pains early in the season will reap dividends in the finale as West Virginia will beat Pittsburgh.  The Backyard Brawl victory will propel West Virginia into a three-way tie with Pittsburgh and Syracuse for second place in the New Big East.  Notre Dame won't be bowl eligible and thus won't be able to usurp a bowl game from a more deserving Big East team.  The Gator Bowl will not invite the Mountaineers back to Jacksonville for a third consecutive year.  Rather, West Virginia will travel to Tempe as the #3 Big East team to face the #4 PAC-10 team, the Oregon Ducks, in the Insight Bowl.  

 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 3.  I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at the prowling Panthers of  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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