It certainly should be. West Virginia was chosen a somewhat surprising seventh in the media preseason poll. That was at least one, and perhaps two, spots lower than some pundits and fans expected. But with a defense facing a near complete rebuild in both the secondary and at linebacker, along with an offense that lost its marquee threat on the ground in Wendell Smallwood, perhaps the Mountaineers do face a bigger climb than locally anticipated.
You'd never know it by most of Holgorsen's comments. A seeming perpetual optimist, Holgorsen said WVU has had another solid summer, and that he's excited about the talent and number of players with experience that the Mountaineers can begin to plug in to the vacated positions.
"I feel like we got the bodies, and we got the players," Holgorsen said "We just gotta get those guys to learn how to play together. We got some guys that played and got a lot of experience on special teams. There's nine fifth-year seniors that are slated to start. Dravon (Askew-Henry) is going to be a junior and Al Benton is going to be a senior, so that's a lot of experience. A lot of older guys played a lot of snaps and I got all the confidence in the world in (defensive coordinator) Tony Gibson to get those guys to learn how to play together. That's what that group last year had going for them. They played so many snaps together that they knew how to play together."
On offense, the script is flipped. West Virginia returns the vast majority of its talent, save Smallwood and a handful of blue collar-type players like Cody Clay and Marquis Lucas. But Holgorsen says a basic repeat performance of last season won't be good enough to finish atop the league, not with a defense that expects to allow more than the 24.6 points per game it did last season and eight of nine opposing conference teams returning their starting quarterback.
"Averaging 35 points a game and being a top 20 offense isn't good enough in this league," he said. "So we've got to move the ball a little bit more, score a little bit more points if we want to be in contention to win it."
Holgorsen pointed to a couple issues which could prove the difference in the season. First, quarterback Skyler Howard enters his second season as a full-time starter, and one who has progressed well within WVU's offense. His timing with the receivers was evident in stretches last season, and must continue to be honed and sharpened throughout the fall. But the jump from the first year to the second as the starter has proven to be the biggest for quarterbacks in Holgorsen's offense, and that's a cause for optimism.
Second, Holgorsen mentioned that offensive coordinator Joe Wickline has been able to widen the pocket a bit, which could mean anything from a touch wider splits to simply changing some footwork to force ends farther away from the center, at least in initial steps. Both would seem to give Howard more time, and Holgorsen said that the combination of experience and added time, along with the continued ability to run the ball, would make a significant difference in overall offensive performance.
"You've gotta be able to run the ball," Holgorsen said. " I've talked a lot about improving the pass game, but by no means is that going to detour anything that we're trying to get accomplished in the run game. Wendell had a great year but everything starts up front. We got Tyler Orlosky, here, fifth-year senior at center, Adam Pankey who has played over 2,000 snaps at guard, fifth-year senior, Tony Matteo, fifth-year senior, you know a couple of good young tackles, so I feel like we've got a pretty good "O" line. That's where it starts. Then we've got to find a back who hits that thing quick, and keep him healthy and keep him fresh and I think we will be just as effective in the run game next year as we were this past year."
The coach was also asked if he found it more difficult than expected for his West Virginia program to get traction in the Big 12. Entering their fifth season in the league, the Mountaineers are 26-25 overall and 15-21 in conference play, but have improved the win total in the last two seasons.
"We've showed improvement the last two years," Holgorsen said. "Looking back on last year we won more games than we have in the previous three years in the Big 12. Two points away from winning 10, so I think we're pretty competitive. I think the schedule sets up a little bit better this upcoming year. We got a lot of bodies, a lot of returning starters, a lot of guys that are familiar with what's going on. So I feel like we're right where we needed to be.
"Early on we flat out didn't have the depth to be able to compete. We had a couple of high-level players that won us some games, but we didn't have the depth. That's not an excuse anymore because the last couple of years we've had depth and we've been competitive. So I like where our team is at, and I feel like we're going to be he every bit as competitive or more this upcoming year."
Holgorsen also commented on Big 12 expansion, the upcoming 2017 championship game and more. The full transcript of Holgorsen's comments can be found here.