"We might play two or three receivers, and two running backs," Rodriguez detailed as he looked down his list of incoming freshmen. The two specialists will have a chance to play, and maybe a linebacker and one or two defensive backs. I won't be surprised to see eight or nine play this year."
Among those mentioned by the coach were Jason Gwaltney and Steve Slaton, who are the obvious running back candidates. The specialists are Pat McAfee and Scott Kozlowski. Expected candidates at the other positions are wide receivers Ryan Dawson, Darren Brownlee and Jeremy Bruce, linebackers Zac Cooper, Reed Williams and Johnny Holmes, and defensive backs Charles Pugh and Quinton Andrews.
Although trying to get such a large number of first-year players ready for action in just a month might seem to be a daunting task, Rodriguez said he will not shy away from using them if they can help the team win now. However, they will have a number of obstacles to overcome in order to get on the field this year.
"We have to see how quickly they pick up the schemes," Rodriguez said. "Usually, the mental aspect is the toughest. We have some redshirt freshmen that we are looking to contribute as well.
"If a freshman can contribute on two or three special teams and a few plays on offense or defense, he's going to play. I don't want to play him if he's only going to play one or two plays per game, but if can help, he will play.
Rodriguez also noted that different factors affect the pace at which the offense and defense can be installed, and having a number of newcomers in the mix is only one of them. Identifying the top two or three quarterbacks will slow the offensive installation somewhat, as will looking at players at different positions. Having the freshmen in for summer workouts does help them be better prepared to compete physically right off the bat, but the fact that they are learning the schemes for the first time is a mental challenge they will have to overcome. Of the 105 players expected to report, at least 34 will be going through their first collegiate fall camp.
Rodriguez noted that the mix of experience and skills at linebacker will allow the defense to mix and match players according to their strengths and the game situation. Jeff Noechel, Jay Henry and Kevin McLee are first on the depth chart entering camp, but Marc Magro and Bobby Hathaway will also see a good deal of time. Mortty Ivy will be the sixth linebacker in the mix for appreciable time, and although he has no game experience, could be another force in the rotation. Noechel and Henry can play all three linebacker spots.
* * *
In addition to Erick Phillips, walkon defensive lineman Jason Karns has a bad shoulder that will keep him out of camp. Those are the only two injuries expected to affect the roster as practice begins.
* * *
Rodriguez again addressed the hype around running back Jason Gwaltney, but reiterated that he will not be handed anything.
"The recruiting battle for Jason was difficult, and we are excited to get him in camp," Rodriguez said. "We know he's still a freshman, but we expect him to battle. I expect to see Steve Slaton to do the same thing, although he doesn't have as much hype around him. We have high expectations, for them, but I guarantee you they will be behind Jason Colson and Pernell Williams. I don't have any expectations on how many yards or how many touchdowns they will have or anything like that, but I expect them to compete for playing time."
Rodriguez also indicated that freshman Ryan Dawson, who has been at WVU all summer, will have a chance to play at wide receiver, in part due to the lack of depth at that position.
"According to the strength and conditioning coaches he has done a great job of getting in shape. But, he hasn't lined up with a defensive back in his face with the coaches around, so we'll see how that goes."
* * *
Brandon Barrett who is one of the 105 scheduled to report, missed some of the summer workouts, presumably due to classroom obligations. "We hope he is in shape," Rodriguez said.
* * *
With the first practice just two days away, Rodriguez and his staff are winding up a series of intense meetings that cover every aspect of the program.
"We get everyone together and on the same page on everything," Rodriguez said of the sessions, which go interrupted by any outside activity. "Academics, training, recruiting, compliance, everything. We discuss everything, and the coaches bring up their own opinions. Sometimes we argue about things, but I feel good about this staff. They know our overall philosophy.
"We also discuss each player in detail," Rodriguez continued. "His academics, his role on the team, everything."
* * *
Eric Wicks is expected to have a breakout year following his play in 2004, which was highlighted by an interception return for a touchdown at Virginia Tech.
"We're high on Eric," Rodriguez said. "He got his feet wet some last year, and we expect a lot bigger role for him this year. I would be shocked if he doesn't have a great season. He's athletic, and he played both sides of ball in high school. "I'm proud of the way he came on in the spring. His work ethic in weight room and the way he has been getting himself ready is really good. Last year was his first year, so anything we got was a bonus. This year we expect more."
* * *
Both lines are also on Rodriguez' mind as the opener with Syracuse looms.
‘I hope we can stay deep on the defensive line and not get any injuries," he noted. "The depth we have now gives us little flexibility. Some guys are run stuffer types, and some are pass rush guys. We may have played some guys too many plays last year, too. If you are 300 pounds going full speed for 65 snaps, that may be too much. The depth will allow us to play more guys."
The offensive line, while not as experienced, has youngsters on the second team that Rodriguez is excited about getting on the field. Tackle Chris Bassler, a star in the making, heads the group that will have to progress quickly during fall camp.