Filling the Ranks

It wasn't too long ago that the Mountaineer football coaching staff was scrambling to find enough quarterbacks just to throw in practice. After two years of outstanding QB recruiting, however, coach Bill Stewart finally has a stable of QBs that should provide both excellent competition and solid depth at this most important offensive position.

Those two guys we had (Brad Lewis and Rasheed Marshall) were tough guys," Stewart recalled with a rueful smile. "We had a tough go there, but we fought through it, and we had a good time. They helped us build this program back, so that's a time I'll remember."

The QB shortage was so acute that Stewart had to monitor the number of throws each quarterback made during practice so as not to overwork them. That led, of course, to concerns about getting the passing game enough work to be sharp.

"We really had to watch how many reps we could run in practice, because we didn't have a lot of arms," Stewart recalled. "But right now, we have a chance to throw the ball a lot, get all the reps we need, and see what we do best. We're going to find out who throws the best in each situation.

"Maybe a guy throws a post-corner better than he throws the post. Maybe he throws the hook or curl better than he throws the dig. We have to find out what each of our guys do best, and work it into the offense's repetoire. That's the key thing. You can call certain plays, but if you don't throw the ball well, it's like beating your head against the wall. So what we want to do is synchronize that to the offense. That's coaching."

Compared to those days, when depth at QB was comparable to a rain puddle, Stewart now has a QB roster more akin to the diving end of a swimming pool. He knows he has talent on hand, and when asked about it smiles like a poker player with a straight flush.

"Right now, with Rasheed and Charles being rising seniors, and Adam Bednarik and Dwayne Thompson going into their first year of eligibility, and then T. J. Mitchell and Pat White, oh, man!" Stewart exclaimed. "We couldn't be in any better shape right now. We are happy, and thrilled, and I'm excited. Like I said before, we need to identify what each of these guys do best, and them work that into the offense, but they all have talent.

"It all starts at QB in our offense. You have to have linemen and backs and receivers, but the QB is the guy that makes it go. And right now, we not only have four good ones in the program, but they are four good guys as well. Believe it or not, they all get along. And I expect T. J. and Pat to follow right along with them. They are good young men."

Now that recruiting has at least slowed for a moment, Stewart and the coaching staff are also concentrating on examining WVU's performance last year, breaking down plays to the tiniest degree, and deciding what to emphasize during spring drills. While the players began the grueling winter "Tour of Duty" workouts this week, Stewart and the rest of his staff are putting in the mental equivalent of the team's winter conditioning as they work to improve WVU's football fortunes even further.

"We're going to go back and devour each phase of offense, defense and special teams, find out what each player does best, and then start adjusting to fit that," Stewart said.

Like most Mountaineer fans, Stewart noted that the players and coaches were bitterly disappointed with the way the season ended. However, those that know the upbeat coach won't be surprised to find that he has already gotten off the mat and is ready to move on to the next battle. There's a core of steel under Stewart's happy exterior, and it showed in his comments about dealing with the Gator Bowl loss and preparing for the upcoming season.

"The team is just like the coaches and the fans," Stewart said of the game's effects on the West Virginia squad. "We got our heart punched in the bowl game. Nobody likes to get licked, particularly in front of all of our wonderful fans. But, we have to let it go. We have to get up the next day and go back to work. We did it in recruiting! If I can go and recruit after the great performances we had against Virginia Tech and Pitt and Miami, then I have to be able to do it after tough losses. It's hard to do, but you have to just regroup and fight another day.

"Bowl games like that sometimes make you better down the road. Now, if that trend continues, we might be worried. But, I've never failed to learn from a loss. If you do, you are so narrow-minded that you are going to get beat again. You can learn from it. We have to take those last two season ending losses and learn from them."

The coaching staff is obviously doing just that, having bounced back with yet another improved recruiting class. And while they would surely like to be able to recruit after a bowl win, Stewart believes the loss didn't have a big negative effect on the recruiting process.

"Losing a bowl game isn't a help, but we haven't had anyone tell us they weren't going to sign with us because we lost a bowl game," the New Martinsville native explained. "I don't like losing bowl games, and I don't want it to happen again. But, what is more important is our consistency. What helps is 12-2 in the Big East over the last two years. Thumping Tech two years in a row. Thumping Pitt two years in a row. Going into Syracuse, where we haven't won in ten years, and winning. Being 14 points down with your second team quarterback at Boston College and winning. Those are the kinds of things that help, and if a kid can't seen that, then he probably isn't a good fit for our program."

Enough players did see that consistency, and the potential of the Mountaineer program, to form a very good class for 2004. And while there are no guarantees about how recruits are going to pan out, there's no doubt that, for the first time under Rich Rodriguez, the Mountaineers are going to be dealing from a position of strength at their key offensive position.

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