West Virginia is badly lacking here. Behind quarterback Patrick White (65-114, 828 yards, 8 TD, 5 INT) and tailback Steve Slaton (205-1128, 17 TD, 5.5 ypc), the Mountaineers offer just a pair of inexperienced signalcallers and a part-time running back/slot receiver. The same could be said last season, when QB Adam Bednarik earned the starting nod and West Virginia had only an unproven redshirt frosh in White and two true freshmen in the backfield alongside Pernell Williams. But head coach Rich Rodriguez noted how fortunate WVU was to receive stellar play from White and Slaton, and that expecting the same from incoming players is a severe stretch.
With Williams and fellow tailback Tyler Benoit having been dismissed from the team, WVU will occasionally slide fullback Owen Schmitt (48-380, 2 TD, 7.9 ypc) into one of the two TB slots alongside White when it goes to its "fully-loaded" shotgun formation. Schmitt has the speed and slight wiggle to play the slot, but being able to insert Williams or Benoit for six to eight snaps per game would have kept Slaton fresh and WVU able to pound the ball with proven carriers. It can also bring former full-time TB Jason Colson (43-120, 1 TD, 2.8 ypc) in from the slot, along with Jeremy Bruce, who has also taken RB snaps. That, however, takes practice time away from the duo at receiver, another area where West Virginia needs to find increased depth after the loss of probable-starter Brandon Barrett. Schmitt has expressed concern over this, and said that he does worry that the Mountaineers will not be as fresh late in the game if another back cannot handle the ball half a dozen times per contest.
That segues to backups Jet Best and Ed Collington. Fall camp will allow more time for the pair to ease into the system. That time is much needed, because Best, who enrolled in January, missed the latter part of spring drills with a broken wrist while Collington has not played for one year after focusing on academics. Best has exceptional speed, but doesn't provide the change-up that former WVU tailback Jason Gwaltney would have offered. Collington, a sophomore, led the WPIAL in rushing with 1,700 yards and 22 touchdowns, yet it also a similarly-styled runner.
The biggest question is if Slaton can remain healthy and if Best and Collington can seize the backup spots. If they can, that allows Colson and Bruce to be full-time receivers, though Colson will almost certainly have to be relied upon in the running game in some aspect now. If Slaton is injured, or proves unable to handle a full season of hits (he has yet to do so, playing just the last eight games in 2005), West Virginia's power spread could be badly lacking.
The quarterback situation is comparable. White, who ran for 952 yards and seven scores last season, has not played a full year, and with the way West Virginia attacks with its quarterback, it can use two, if not three, solid players. It might have those in Nate Sowers (a quick, subtley-gifted QB) and Jarrett Brown (a hulking 6-3, 220-pounder with a very good arm), but neither has taken a game snap. Again, it worked out last season when the oft-injured Bednarik finally lost the position for good when he was forced out of the game against Louisville and White rallied the Mountaineers from a 24-7 deficit to a 46-44 triple-overtime win. But testing the untested in two consecutive seasons is pushing the Lady Luck Rodriguez depended upon last year.
2. Replacing the cornerbacks
Defensive backs coach Tony Gibson has the team's biggest rebuilding project. He must replace NFL draftee Dee McCann and second-team Big East performer Anthony Mims. WVU also lost fellow corner and specialist Thandi Smith, who blocked a punt against Rutgers and recovered it for a score and caught the onside kick against Louisville that sparked the comeback. (Note: Gibson must also replace free safety Jahmile Addae, but the depth – Ham Jones and Quinton Andrews – and ability there is more experienced than at corner.)
Gibson will continue to hone Antonio Lewis and Larry Williams. The latter, called by some coaches the finest corner West Virginia had last season, must develop better consistency. He was solid in the spring, and seems ready to become the player the staff thought he could be. Lewis, also WVU's punt returner, is very steadyand provides athleticism. The pair will be backed by a combination of Kent Richardson, Vaughn Rivers, who came over from playing wideout, and newcomer Greg Davis, who chose West Virginia over Tennesee. Gibson had hoped to have Ryan Brinson as well, but the freshman is not expected to qualify academically. Senior Marcus Law will also help here.
This is a major issue, but perhaps one West Virginia can easily overcome. Lewis has experience, and Williams the trappings, for very good defensive back play. Both have seen game action, and Williams provides a good cover presence. The depth is decent, but any injury will test WVU and see how ready Gibson can get Davis, who has great physical skills but still must pass the NCAA Clearinghouse. He was expected to arrive in Morgantown today (Aug. 2.)
3. Offensive Line
It's no stretch to note that this was a concern long before spring drills. The coaches knew they needed to find tackles to replace Travis Garrett and Garin Justice, a three-year starter. There have been bigger problems for line coach Rick Trickett, even in midseason when former center Jeremy Hines quit after being demoted to second team and guard Dan Mozes had to slide into the spot. But the assistant head coach must continue to work his magic and develop talent many thought lesser.
The projected starters are Damien Crissey, a walk-on from Edinboro, and Jake Figner. Both have great quickness, with Figner getting upfield and Crissey being the fastest lineman in the 40. They had solid springs, and backup John Bradshaw, who was actually the most highly-recruited of the three, also performed well. Still, neither has taken many game snaps, and the first snap in the home opener will, hopefully, be the first start for both. Having Mozes and guard Jeremy Sheffey as upperclassmen will help, and guard Ryan Stancheck has performed very well.
Still, there isn't much depth here, with Mozes being backed by Mike Dent and Stancheck by Greg Isdaner, who should have a very good career at WVU. Dent and Isdaner are fine, but in Mozes West Virginia has an All-American who is arguably the team's most important player. He handles the pre-snap reads, makes the calls and can plug the middle and ward off larger players. He and White have also developed a feel for each other, and that is key for the exchange and timing, even in the shotgun. Trickett was worked miracles before, and because this isn't even close to that, the offensive line should be all right on paper. Just cross the fingers about depth.
4. The Kicking Game
Common thought is that Pat McAfee and Scott Kozlowski should be a great one-two combination, among the best kickers in the conference, if not the nation. But McAfee, who has a great leg, struggled with accuracy at times last season and actually finished as the sixth-best kicker accuracy-wise in the conference. He made just 11 of 18 field goals (61.1 percent). That's far worse that Louisville's Art Carmody, who hit 14 of 16, and even Rutgers' Jeremy Ito (20 of 27, including a 52-yarder) and Pitt's Josh Cummings (14 of 19). The latter is gone, but there are still two other returning kickers who outpaced McAfee's average.
The sophomore did begin to get a handle on his leg late in the season, and he made huge plays against Louisville, with an onside kick, and Georgia, where he routinely booted kickoffs into the end zone and made what was the eventual game-winning field goal in the 38-35 win. He is as contentious of a player as Rodriguez says he has had, and nobody feels worse upon a miss than McAfee, who presents a happy-go-lucky attitude but is very serious about his craft. He identified a stance problem late last season that helped with his accuracy, and has apparently been dead-on since. With a leg that can manage upwards of 70-plus yard field goals, if McAfee can just maintain his newfound accuracy and know his stance issues and foot placement, he will be a fantastic asset.
Kozlowski, the Scout.com No. 1-rated punter in the 2005 class, has still struggled with West Virginia's rugby style of punting. He is an excellent straight-up punter, and so the Mountaineers might choose to punt that way more often this season. WVU will also be without the punting services of Bednarik, who could quick-kick out of the shotgun. If West Virginia can't find a quarterback who can do that, look for more regular punting this season, which does allow for more return chances. This will be a major part of special teams work this fall.
5. Reserve linebackers
This doesn't, upon first glance, appear to be a problem. West Virginia has an outside stud with Boo McLee and a great inside player in Jay Henry. It offers Bobby Hathaway or Reed Williams on the flipside, and can use Barry Wright or Marc Magro for depth. And, in all, that analysis would be correct. But the spring ACL tear to Mortty Ivy hurt this unit more than most fans thought. There were numbers there, but nobody with Ivy's playmaking ability.
The sophomore has a great body and can play in power and pass-based sets. His versatility is what will be most missed if he cannot recover in the fall. Ivy has made great strides, however, and completed almost all of the lifting and steadily regained strength and mobility. Barring a major surprise, he is expected to be fully cleared for fall drills by trainer Dave Kerns. His addition would add major speed and talent on the outside.
WVU also must replace walk-on-turned-starter Jeff Noechel, who had 30 tackles in 12 starts last year, and Johnny Holmes has been moved to the spur spot to maximize speed and wingspan on the outside and in coverage. Former spur Eric Wicks, who Rodriguez says might be the best safety he ever coached by the time he leaves, slid to bandit, where he will match up more with tight ends and leave wideouts to Holmes.
That completes the first segment of our 10 questions. Look for the last 10 queries on Friday, one day before West Virginia opens its fall camp for its 115th season of football.