Though WVU returns 16 starters from last year's 9-4 squad, Rodriguez and his staff do have to find replacements for one of the school's all-time great running backs (Quincy Wilson), West Virginia's ninth consensus All-American (linebacker Grant Wiley) and a pair of defensive backs who between them started over 70 games.
Several key Mountaineers will be limited this spring, as they continue to rehab from injuries. Offensive lineman Tim Brown, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles, has been granted another season of eligibility by the NCAA, but he's still not ready for strenuous practice sessions. The good news is that Brown recently started jogging again, and his rehab is going well, but he will be very, very limited this spring.
The same is true for senior linebacker Adam Lehnortt and junior free safety Jahmile Addae. Lehnortt played the last half of the 2003 season with a torn rotator cuff, and he underwent surgery last month. His rehab effort is going very well also, but he will not participate in any contact this spring. Addae, who missed most of the 2003 season with a shoulder injury, also is progressing well but will do little, if any, hitting this spring. Those injuries will give more practice reps to some of the youngsters on the squad who are fighting for spots on the depth chart.
Rodriguez is anxious to get spring drills started to see what the 2004 edition can do. Rested and tanned from a week in Mexico with other college coaches as part of an outing sponsored by Nike, Rich is quick to point out that despite all the returning starters, every job is up for grabs this spring. I got a chance to sit down with Coach Rodriguez last week to discuss a variety of topics.
Blue & Gold News – It's hard to believe it's almost time for spring practice. What's been the focus of the coaches since recruiting wrapped up?
Rich Rodriguez – "Time goes really quick when you're in a bowl game. You practice all the way up until January, and then you're right in the middle of recruiting. We've spent the last month as coaches reviewing every aspect of our team – offense, defense and special teams. Our players have been busy working with our strength staff on their speed and conditioning and strength development. It's been a pretty busy month.
"Now we're to the point where we're getting ready for spring practice. We're allowed to have 15 practice sessions, and we try to plan everything out for that. Our coaches, before spring practice and during spring practice, will also watch some film on some of our first few opponents and kind of get our summer scouting report ready."
B&GN – The self-scouting you do on your team, how involved is it? What do you learn from that?
Rodriguez – "One, you want to see what you've done well in the past, and hopefully you can continue that. You also see what you need to get better at. That's probably the major issue – where do you need to get better. Last year I thought we had some positive things happen in all three play phases, but there were also some things we weren't very good at. The pleasing part is we can get a lot better. Part of that has to do with players having experience, but some of it also has to do with our schemes, throwing out the bad and keeping the good."
B&GN – Well, without giving away all the family secrets, what were some of the bad and what were some of the good?
Rodriguez – "It's no secret that we need to throw the football better. We have to get better with play action. I think the opportunity was there. We did hit a few big plays, but we have to be more consistent on throwing the football on first and second down. Also, we're going to have a little more flexibility at the quarterback position, because we're going to have four quality quarterbacks, and two more quality freshmen quarterbacks coming in. I don't think we'll be as worried about running the quarterback as much as we were last year, when we had just Rasheed (Marshall) and Charles (Hales). We now can do more things with the quarterback runs like I've done in the past.
"Defensively, we want to get a pass rush and get more pressure on the quarterback. We want to do a few more things on first and second downs in variety of coverages. We've been pretty simple the past couple of years, which has helped us play fast and play hard, but at the same time, I think we can be more multiple coverage-wise, which would give our DBs a chance to confuse the quarterback."
B&GN – Do you stay with the 3-3 odd stack as your base defense, or do you completely scrap it?
Rodriguez – "No, we'll keep it as our base, because our players know it, and we've recruited to it, but I do think that we can add some more wrinkles, because, one, we are more experienced up front defensively, and two, with our staff's familiarity with the defense, we can get more multiple with the looks.
"The last couple of years we've been pretty bland with the defense. Last year we started to do a few more things out of the odd stack, but this year we can become a lot more multiple, while still keeping the odd stack as our base."
B&GN – Up front defensively, as you said, you have a lot of experience returning. Fred Blueford was the only senior in last year's defensive line, and he was out of the lineup at the end of the season because of an injury. Add in some promising young defensive linemen and now Jeff (Casteel, WVU's defensive coordinator) and Kirlav (Bill Kirelawich, the Mountaineers' defensive line coach) seem to have some depth where last year you were painfully thin there.
Rodriguez – "Yeah, we were thin up front last year, and that's always the position that gets hit the most by injuries, because those guys are in the middle of everything and getting banged around on almost every play. We were hanging by a thread there most of last season, but we survived and return most of those guys. We also have some young players we are excited about.
They haven't played yet, so they are inexperienced, but we will at least have some guys to throw in there. That way the Ben Lynches and guys like that won't have to play 80 plays. I thought Ben did a great job, considering how much we had to play him, those guys are usually more effective if you can limit them to 50 to 55 plays."
B&GN – Behind them, you do return two starting linebackers (Scott Gyorko and Adam Lehnortt), but obviously you lose a great one with Grant Wiley's graduation. How do you try to replace Grant? Can you even do it with one person?
Rodriguez – "Grant made so many plays and so many big plays for us for so long. You can't replace those type of numbers and those types of plays. But we hope some guys can step up. Adam is a returning starter, and we feel very good about him, but he's going to be out all spring with a shoulder. That will give a chance for some of the young guys, guys like Boo McLee, Jay Henry, Marc Magro, Jeff Noechel, Ben Clemmons and some of them to show what they can do. Then we have some new guys we don't know much about like Joe Sykes, and we want to see what he can do this spring. Part of the spring is working on fundamentals and schemes, but part of it is evaluating, in particular, your newer players and seeing what they've got."
B&GN – Who is spring more important for, the younger guys or the veterans?
Rodriguez – "Oh, don't think there is any doubt that it's more important for the newer guys, who don't have much experience. Joe Sykes is a junior college guy who we've brought in, not to redshirt but to see how much he can learn in a short period of time. It seems like a lot, but 15 practices go pretty quick, especially when only eight of them are full contact. We're going to force feed some of those guys and see if they are able to handle it.
"Also this spring, scheme-wise we want to define all 11 positions. We're going to make it more defined. In other words, both ‘backers won't be the same type of guy; one may be better in the box and the other may be better outside the box. Figuring out where to put the proper people in each of the 11 positions is going to be an important part of our spring."
Rodriguez – "The most inexperience we have will be in the secondary. Jahmile Addae should be back, and though he'll be limited this spring, we know what we have there. Pacman Jones is obviously a good player, but he has to continue to refine his fundamentals and techniques. Lawrence Audena is a guy whose time has come. He's an upperclassman, a senior, and it's time for him to become an every-down player. Mike Lorello is a guy we think can play a couple of positions back there at the safeties, and we know he's solid. The rest of the guys are all young guys who haven't played much. Joe Hunter, Davanzo Tate, Vaughn Rivers, Anthony Mims, Larry Williams, all those guys look like they have a chance to play a lot (at cornerback). In the fall we will add a junior college guy, Alton McCann, so we will have a lot of new guys in the secondary. But we think we will have some depth to work with, and that's what we're looking for, not just on our first and second down packages, but also on third down when we want five or six DBs on the field.
"There are several guys at the Spur and Bandit positions whose time also has come. Akeem Jackson, Ridwan Malik, Abraham Jones and a number of others who haven't played much yet, but now is the time for them to show that they can do it."
B&GN – Because you're recruiting well, this is an important spring for a lot of your players who have been around for a year or two, because if they don't make their move now and establish themselves on the depth chart, it probably won't be long before they are passed by some of the newcomers.
Rodriguez – "We feel pretty good that we are adding some good athletes at that position. A guy like Vince Beamer may have been able to play for us last year, but his eligibility didn't come in until late and then he hurt his hamstring. Now he's settled in, he's healthy, and he's going to get a lot of reps. We have so many guys at that safety position that it's going to be hard to give them all reps in practice, but we have to try to find a way to do that so we can see who the best players are."
B&GN – Is it a problem that several guys who you will almost certainly be depending on next year – Adam Lehnortt, Jahmile Addae and Tim Brown – will be limited in their work this spring as they recover from injuries?
Rodriguez – "I still hope they can get a little bit of work in, but at the same time, it does free up more reps for some of the younger guys who we don't know much about. In a way, it's a blessing, because we will get some guys more reps than they would have otherwise gotten. We will keep all three of those guys involved mentally this spring in what we're doing, and then they will need to have great summers to pick it up physically what they missed this spring."
B&GN – On the offensive side, start with Tim Brown and the line. It's got to be nice to get Tim back.
Rodriguez – "The nice part is that not only is Tim a great athlete, but he's also a good leader for our guys. I think by missing the entire year like he did has really made him hungry. I think he really missed being part of the action, being part of the fray. Tim's really going to be hungry, and he's such a good leader for us and such a smart football player that we're automatically better once he comes back in.
"Then we also have guys like Jeff Berk, who has experience and has been a solid guy for us. We have more experience up front offensively than anytime since I've been here. I don't know if Coach (Rick) Trickett is going to know how to handle himself. We have a few guys at some new positions on the o-line that we are going to experiment with so we can really develop some quality depth. We've really been thin there the past couple of years, and it will be nice to have depth."
B&GN – So you're saying that Coach Trickett is going to take a rocking chair to practice, because he doesn't have much work to do?
Rodriguez – (Chuckling) "I can't imagine him or Coach Kirelawich ever coaching like that. It's just not in their personality. It's going to be real competitive between the two lines; the one-on- ones and the pass rush drills are going to be fun to watch this spring."
B&GN – Everyone knows that competition in practice only makes a team better. So having this depth has to be great for a coach.
Rodriguez – "I think all the top programs have quality competition at almost every position. In that way, one, an injury doesn't hurt you as much, and two, it elevates the play of everybody on the team. It also gives you more freedom and flexibility in what you can call. You're not as afraid to isolate a guy or move a guy to another position, because it inevitably weakens two spots. That's what we found out the past couple of years. At times we would have been better off moving a guy, but then we weaken two spots. The competition is coming, and the good thing is a lot of them are freshmen and sophomores, so they still have a couple of years left. But I think we'll have a nice mix of veteran leadership with some young guys who are hungry."
This is just part of an indepth interview that appeared in last week's print edition of the Blue & Gold News - where you can find more analysis, insight and coverage of the Mountaineers. Get your subscription to the Blue & Gold News today!