Five Questions

Last year, prior to spring practice, we listed five questions that had to be answered for the Mountaineer football team to have a successful season.

As events proved, the majority of the questions turned out to be without answers, and West Virginia struggled to a final 3-8 record.

With the hope that the answers will be more positive this time around, we again present five key questions and issues that must be resolved for WVU to field a winning football team in 2002.

1) How will the defense react to its third scheme in three years?

Although head coach Rich Rodriguez emphasizes that this year's 3-3-5 defensive look will be simpler to learn, there's no doubt that some confusion will be evident as the veterans work to assimilate their third defensive scheme in three seasons.

The staff will do their best to ease the transition by keeping terminology the same (for example, "rover" and "whip" are still expected to be used), but assignments and responsibilities will be changing, especially for the defensive linemen and linebackers.

In some ways, newcomers will have it easier. They won't have to "unlearn" last year's defense. They won't be confused by reads that dictated one response last season, but a different response this year. But on the flip side, they'll be playing football at a vastly accelerated pace.

The defense will be the most scrutinized unit during the spring, and their ability to assimilate the new scheme during the 15 spring sessions will be a major determinant in their 2002 success.

2) Will enough players be found at wide receiver to form the eight deep that the coaching staff would like?

Depending on one freshman or newcomer to bolster a unit is one thing. But WVU will be looking for at least three newcomers to step in and contribute immediately on the pass catching corps.

What's more, we're not talking about role players here. We talking about guys making 20 or 30 catches. Making the task even more difficult is the fact that these newcomers won't be practicing until fall.

Therefore, the coaches task this spring is to find at least three more players who can play 20-30 snaps per game, block well, and make plays when they are on the field.

Returning regulars A.J. Nastasi and Mike Page are solid and shouldn't be any worry. Unfortunately, inconsistent Phil Braxton will be on light duty for most of the spring as he continues to recover from his broken foot. Braxton's absence from contact drills won't help him, but could pave the way for one or more teammates to gain some notice.

Help has to come from guys like Miquelle Henderson, Dee Alston, and a walkon or two such as Tony Clackler, John Pennington or Josh Romeo. Someone has to come out of the woodwork and impress, such as Jermaine Thaxton.

If WVU doesn't have five or six solid receivers that are comfortable in their roles by the end of spring, then depth will again be a concern come August. And even then, the newcomers will have to prove themselves on the field, and do so quickly.

3) Will a quarterback emerge who can throw the ball accurately downfield?

The lack of a downfield passing game sorely hurt the WVU offense last year. While much of the aerial attack is built on quick slants and short routes, there is also a need to get the ball downfield so that receivers can make one on one plays.

Last season, more than one receiver was able to get open deep on several occasions, but poor passes led to incompletions rather than big gains.

Spring drills will feature a quarterback battle between Rasheed Marshall and Danny Embick. Each has the skills to run the ball and throw the short pass. The one that ends up making the best decisions and displays the ability to throw the ball downfield with accuracy will emerge with a leg up on the starting job.

4) Are there enough linebackers to last throughout the season?

Lack of depth figures to be the primary curse of this Mountaineer team, and other than wide receiver it could show up most at linebacker.

The new defensive scheme requires a middle (mike) backer, along with two outside backers that will be stacked behind the defensive tackles.

Going into the spring, Grant Wiley figures to play at one of the outside spots, but after that it is open season. Adam Lehnortt will get a look at the mike position, while James Davis will likely begin at the other outside position.

Behind that is a good deal of inexperience, with players like Scott Gyorko, Shane Graham, and Ben Collins being the only roster players with any field time. Redshirt freshman Alex Lake is the only other scholarship linebacker available that returns from last season.

Other than those six, the Mountaineer linebacking corps is dotted with walkons. One newcomer who could provide immediate help is juco Leandre Washington, who is eligible to practice this spring.

Linebacker is a violent and physical position, and an absolute minimum is two deep at all three positions. Anything short of that, and WVU will again be facing major problems on defense.

5) After last season's struggles, will the team buy into the coaching staff's "new approach"?

We don't mean to overemphasize this point. It's not like the coaching staff was a group of ogres last season. However, there is no doubt that the staff, led by Rodriguez, is making more of an effort this year to connect with their players and foster a better atmosphere.

Will it take? Reports from winter workouts seem to say that it has, as turnouts and the work ethic displayed have been pleasing to the strength and conditioning staff.

However, remember that this is winter. No games have been played, and adversity hasn't been faced. How will the team respond after a couple of bad things happen? That, more than any other question, has to be answered in the positive for the Mountaineers to return to the winning side of the ledger.

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