Five Questions

Our annual look at the five most pressing questions facing West Virginia's football team as it prepares for spring drills.

While West Virginia appears to be pretty well-stocked for another run at a BCS bowl in 2006, there are still several areas of concern to be addressed as the Mountaineers gear up for spring practice, which begins on March 20. Although some of these questions probably won't be answered completely until the fall, the groundwork will certainly be laid during the 15 practice sessions to come over the next month. Q1) How will the rebuilding of the secondary be addressed?

A) West Virginia lost a great deal of savvy, experience and talent in the back end when the final gun sounded in the Sugar Bowl. Cornerbacks Dee McCann, Anthony Mims and Thandi Smith, along with free safety Jahmile Addae went out with a glorious win, but also left a hole the size of a Pittsburgh pothole in their wake.

Fortunately, there is some experience coming back at the corners. Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams are expected to step into the starting roles there, and both played a good bit last year, both in substitution roles and as part of WVU's third-down package, so they have been under fire in critical situations. However, both must improve on their consistency, which was what kept them from winning the starting jobs outright a year ago. Both certainly have the talent (and likely had more natural talent than their predecessors), but must show they can keep their play at a high level for 40-50 snaps per game.

At free safety, an interesting battle will be played out as veteran Abraham Jones and redshirt freshman Quinton Andrews are expected to battle for Addae's job. This spring is critical for Jones, who is blessed with sprinter's speed, but hasn't quite shown the consistent level of play needed for the crucial free safety spot. Andrews has all the tools, including speed and power, to be a playmaker in the back of the defense, and he attacks the ball like a pit bull going after a raw steak. His playing time depends on how comfortable he can get in making calls, recognizing routes, and making the right reads on the fly in the defense. This is a classic battle of experience versus potential, and the hope is that the pair will push each other to become better players, but the expectation is that both will be ready to play this fall, which makes depth less of a concern.

That's not the case at corner, where inexperience abounds behind Williams and Lewis. Redshirt freshman Kent Richardson has the body type and physical skills to be a good field corner, and will get a lot of snaps there this spring. Converted running back Pernell Williams, who showed his coverage skills in the Big 33 game, will also get a heavy dose of work as Tony Gibson tries to build depth in his corps. Charles Pugh, who could also get a look at bandit, also has the speed to play cornerback, and could work his way into the mix if he can keep himself on an even keel.

WVU's deep defensive back recruiting class, which includes Greg Davis, Franchot Allen, Ryan Brinson and Robert Williams, could also be a factor this fall, and one or more of those players figures to avoid a redshirt and get on the field in 2006. Gibson would obviously prefer, of course, to have a two-deep identified before those players hit the field.

FINAL THOUGHT: WVU's secondary will be a work in progress during the season, but it will have to be hitting its stride before visits to Louisville and Pitt if the Mountaineers hope to extend their Big East championship streak to four.

Q2) How will WVU deal with being the favorite in the Big East?

Many fans and analysts like to look at history to determine the answer to questions such as these. They note that WVU didn't fare well as the conference favorite in 2004, but steamrolled to the title in 2005 as underdogs to Pitt and Louisville. While such historical precedents may be fun to analyze and discuss, they have exactly zero bearing on what will happen in 2006.

‘WVU always plays better as an underdog,' the cry goes. While recent history may bear that out, it wasn't true in 1988, when WVU as anointed early on as a dark horse favorite for the national title. WVU rolled to the Fiesta Bowl, where, as an underdog, they succumbed (in large part because of injuries) to Notre Dame. There are other precedents as well that disprove that popular notion, so you can drop it right now.

The real factor that determines how WVU handles the preseason hype lies in its leadership. In 2004, there were a few players that certainly weren't on board the bus. In 2005, the reverse was true. What will happen in 2006? It likely falls on two groups of players.

The first, of course, is the seniors. Guys like Craig Wilson, Jay Henry, Boo McLee, Brandon Myles, Abraham Jones, Eric Wicks, Jason Colson, Dan Mozes and Jeremy Sheffey will set the tone for this squad. They have had outstanding role models to follow, and should be good leaders on the field and in the locker room.

The second, and something of a wild card, are the young stars on the team. Pat White and Steve Slaton are obvious examples, but some other up and coming youngsters, such as Darius Reynaud and Reed Williams, could also factor into the leadership equation. While the seniors are certainly the backbone in this area, guys that play very well and produce on the field become de facto leaders, and how they handle their success, as well as a new leadership role, is critical as well. Young stars can sometimes go off in their own direction and cause rifts on a team – and those types of problems can mean the difference between wins and losses.

FINAL THOUGHT: Although WVU certainly has the potential for this sort of problem, I don't see it happening. White and Slaton, while confident, don't appear to be the type to put themselves first or ignore the leadership duties that have come their way since they emerged to become stars during the second half of last year. And with those sorts of examples setting the tone, this year's breakout players aren't likely to get off the reservation either. Every team is different, of course, but it would be a surprise to see this team throw away those things that helped it to a Sugar Bowl win last year.

Q3) Will WVU be able to throw the ball more effectively than it did a year ago?

A) On one level, who cares? Until teams figure out a way to stop the three-headed monster of White, Slaton and Owen Schmitt, West Virginia doesn't need to throw the rock. Of course, that's a bit of a flip answer, because teams are always looking for ways to improve.

While no one can expect WVU to suddenly become Northwestern or Texas Tech, the thinking here is that the Mountaineer passing game could show incremental improvements this year. Some small bits of evidence tending in that direction were evident during practices for the Sugar Bowl, when a few improvements were seen that hadn't been apparent for much of the year.

To make those improvements stick, however, several things have to happen. Pat White ahs to continue to improve his defensive recognition skills, receivers have to be consistent in their route-running and catching, and, perhaps most importantly, head coach Rich Rodriguez will have to allow White to throw the ball in the middle of the field on occasion.

FINAL THOUGHT: West Virginia's yardage might improve a bit in 2006, especially if someone like Darius Reynaud gets several touches per game. However, with a juggernaut of a running game, there's not going to be an aerial circus in the skies over Mountaineer Field unless teams figure out how to slow down White, Slaton and Schmitt.

Q4) Who will be the breakout star on this year's team?

In addition to Reynaud, who already made his mark in his first year in the lineup, a couple of other players could be poised to make an impact in 2006. Remember, however, that "impact" doesn't always mean "all-conference player" or "starter". The curse of expectations often causes negative reactions after the fact, so keep those starry-eyed dreams of glory in check. With that said:

  • Reed Williams could be ready to make a dent in the rotation at linebacker. Williams surprised the coaching staff with his pursuit speed and sideline-to sideline coverage range. If he continues to progress, WVU will be loaded at the mike linebacker spot.

  • Chris Bassler would have been in the mix at tackle a year ago, but a knee injury zapped his chances. Ready again for the spring of 2006, Bassler is likely to claim one of the two tackle spots vacated by Travis Garrett and Garin Justice. While those two players were very good for WVU, Bassler has athletic gifts that neither of those native West Virginians possessed. Assuming his knee gives him no problems, he could be an anchor up front.

    FINAL THOUGHT: I always cringe at predicting success for individuals, because if they don't immediately become stars, they get labeled as "busts", or worse. However, I think these three players could have an impact on West Virginia's fortunes during 2006. Enough to make a difference in a game or two? We'll have to wait to see about that.

    Q5) Who is going to backup/beat out Pat White at quarterback?

    A) Patience, people. No sooner is the starting quarterback job settled than people want to pry the lid off and dump a whole can of worms out again. That, perhaps, is the nature of the position, but we certainly don't see such debates over the starting nose guard position.

    Going into the spring, Pat White is the starter. Adam Bednarik is the backup. And Jarrett Brown, T. J. Mitchell and Nate Sowers will compete during the spring for the third spot. Of course, that could change should someone decide to leave, but speculation about such topics is a waste of time at best, and possibly harmful at worst.

    Unless one of the four backups shows great, and I do mean great, improvement during spring drills, the job is Pat's going into the fall. And that's as it should be, no matter how impressive someone looks on the scout team. White has the ability to make people miss, and that factor alone puts him ahead of the sizeable crowd behind him, no matter how much fans and single-track minded media want to see more passing yardage.

    FINAL THOUGHT: Barring any major surprises, White will be under center, or, more likely, in the shotgun, when the Mountaineers take the field against Marshall in September.

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