Production in this area has been almost non-existent in recent years, and as a result it heads our list of questions for the spring.
Pass rushing is as much of an art as it is of a science - some players have the ability to get to the quarterback, and some don't. WVU has had a number of talented defensive linemen over the past couple of years, but getting around blockers and to the quarterback weren't their strengths.
Among West Virginia's current defensive linemen, thre isn't a player that jumps out in terms of pass rushing ability, but we also haven't seen players like Pat Liebig or Craig Wilson on the field yet.
Look for WVU to put some different formations on the defensive side of the ball in order to get more pressure on the quarterback, especially from the linebacker level.
2) Can the passing game be improved enough to take some of the heat off the running attack?
Another repeat from last year, but again, an important one. Somehow, WVU managed to be a productive offensive unit without a consistent intermediate or deep passing game, which was a testament to both the players on offense and to the schemes the coaching staff devised.
Can WVU count on that magic again in 2003? It will be more difficult, as the offensive line has to be revamped and opposing coaches have had all winter to study WVU's rushing schemes. The best antidote, therefore, is just an uptick in the passing game's consistency.
It won't take much. Rasheed Marshall averaged 124 passing yards per game last year. If he could take that to around 200 yards per game, the Mountaineer attack would be very difficult to stop.
It's not all on Rasheed's shoulders, of course. WVU's receivers need to improve their separation skills and make a tough catch on occasion. And Rasheed needs to improve on the accuracy of his deep passes. If those two items can come together, West Virginia's offense should roll up big numbers. If not, the attck could (pardon the pun) be ground to a halt.
3) Will an explosive return man be found to jumpstart WVU's return game?
WVU has enjoyed some stellar kick return performers during their time at New Mountaineer Field, but last year they didn't get the game breaking return that West Virginia fans have come to expect.
That's not a knock on anyone, and especially not on punt returner Lance Frazier, who does an outstanding job of catching and securing the ball, which is the first job of any return man. However, having a weapon on special teams can be the turning point in games, as WVU witnessed firsthand in losses to Maryland, Wisconsin and Virginia last year.
There are some candidates. Both Travis Garvin and Adam Jones got a brief look at the return spots last year, and both appear to have the ability to make opposing tacklers miss. Cassel Smith will likely return (another pun, sorry) in a kickoff return spot, but the other spot is open.
Head coach Rich Rodriguez has promised more attention to special teams this spring, and although WVU's return game was adequate last year, an upgrade would definitely help in the close battles that the Mountaineers anticipate in 2003.
4) Will the defensive staff be able to come together quickly enough?
There is no questioning the individual talents and achievements of the defensive staff. Jeff Casteel installed an entirely new defensive scheme that showed marked improvement in 2002, Bruce Tall is a veteran coach with outstanding credentials who is getting his shot at the big time, Tony Gibson has capitalized on his early chance in Division 1 and become an excellent coach, and Bill Kirelawich's record of achievement speaks for itself.
As Mountaineer fans have seen, though, individual accomplishments of the coaches don't always mesh together into an effective unit. And while we don't forsee any personality clashes or anything of that sort among the defensive staff, they do have to learn how to work together and teach the individaul pieces of the defense effectively so that they fit together as a whole.
The process of learning how to do that, as well as simply getting the new staff memebers comfortable with the new schemes, takes time. The defensive staff has been working furiously to get everything put together in time for the opening of spring practice this Friday, but sometimes things of this nature can't be rushed. There's inevitably tweaking that goes on in both the defensive schemes and how they are taught, and the important thing is that the coaches are consistent so they don't confuse their players.
5) Can WVU avoid the massive breakdowns that led to three of their four losses in 2002?
We'll end on a sort of metaphysical question. In a way, it's not fair, because it's very difficult for the coaching staff to address this kind of problem. Coach Rod can't just get up and say 'Keep your heads in the game, even if things go bad', and expect the meltdowns of last season's games against Wisconsin, Maryland and Virginia to never rear their heads again.
Of course, the staff knows that. They know that speeches, or bringing up those losses and bad streteches over and over, won't make those breakdowns disappear.
Instead, the staff will concentrate on eliminating the mistakes that put WVU into a tailspin in those contests. As was pointed out by defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel recently, if some of the mistakes in those games were eliminated, then the Mountaineer team wouldn't have been in that position in the first place.
So, rather than oratory or emphasizing the negative, the coaching staff will focus on the root cause of those bad stretches. In effect, they'll try to nip those problems in the bud, before they can mushroom into lengthy bad periods of play.
Last year, enough of the questions facing the Mountaineers during spring practice were answered to boost WVU to an excellent season. This year? That's the fun of it all - we'll have to wait to find out.