Brace for Contact

The seemingly finesse position of West Virginia's offense has a nasty side, a nitty-gritty aspect that seems to fit with its newest emerging threat.

Freshman wide receiver Carmen Connolly, another of the players that slipped through Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt's recruiting wall – apparently built by the same contractors as that of Jericho – relishes the contact his slot demands. Connolly, a greyshirt safety-turned-receiver in spring practice, has embraced the blue-collar approach, one that is similar to the style of football played at Seton-LaSalle High, his alma mater.

"This is just like western Pennsylvania football," Connolly said. "You feel like you are home when you're here."

He might be the only Pittsburgh recruit that can say as much. WPIAL football – the largest high school athletic league in the nation – is traditionally a run-first conference that, though producing standout NFL quarterbacks like Dan Marino, Joe Montana and former Mountaineer Marc Bulger, relies on a playing ethic like the city's steelworking background. Linebacker Anthony Leonard played in McKeesport's tri-headed rushing offense that won WPIAL and PIAA titles, one that passes the football as often as Mark Mangino and Ralph Friedgen pass on French toast. Fellow frosh wideout Wes Lyons was initially attractive to WVU's coaching staff because of his blocking, which he could practice at a better than 2-to-1 clip because of Woodland Hills' run-based offense.

Seton-LaSalle is the exception. The small, private school embraces the pass, so much so that Connolly set a state record his senior year with 116 catches for 1,580 yards and 16 scores, the eighth-highest reception total nationally in 2004. He finished with 221 career grabs for 3,019 yards and 33 touchdowns and was also the Rebels' leading tackler three consecutive seasons, tallying three additional defensive TDs.

The defensive time spurred a nasty infusion into his offensive play. Connolly doesn't block players as much as try to eliminate them, and that desire is a major key in an offense in which downfield blocking can morph 10-yard gainers into 50-plus-yard scores.

"You are expected to do everything here as a wide receiver," Connolly said. "You have to have the total package. You can't just be a guy who has speed but can't block. You can't play here if you can't block. That's what is expected of all of us, to be well-rounded wide receivers."

His svelte, 6-0, 190-pound frame must round out for the quick wideout to truly begin laying out 230-pound linebackers. But his tenacity in perfecting the most underrated aspect of the spread offense has pushed him ahead, for now, of Lyons as the first freshman to break into the two-deep.

"You have to stay on your block for five seconds," he said. "(Receivers) coach (Butch) Jones says five seconds and three great efforts gets you one block. That's very true. You have to stay on your blocks for a very long time to help the backs in this offense."

Rodriguez has noticed. So, too, has quarterback Patrick White, who is verbally rewarding that effort, if not finding the first-year player more often on the field.

"He works hard," White said. "He runs good routes and has good hands. When he doesn't have the ball in his hands, he is going to work for it."

Those hands have also allowed him to slide into the backup holder role behind Lewisburg, W.Va. native Travis McClintic.

"Carmen has done some nice things," head coach Rich Rodriguez said. "It's his first fall camp, too, but right now he is closer to helping us than Wes is. But that can all change in a week."

And it has. Lyons had an early edge, and the main share of attention. That shifted to Connolly, both because of his abilities and because Lyons has been bothered by a shoulder and his hand, which has been wrapped for the last three practice sessions.

"I don't want to look too far ahead," Connolly said. "We want to take it day-to-day and game-by-game. I'd like to see the field, but whatever the coaches have in store for me is fine. You want to get on the field, but sometimes you are not ready for it mentally or physically. I feel that I have been picking up more, but we really have not installed everything. You just have to take it slow and be ready for what comes to you and try to learn what you can.

"Everybody is so much faster. I am keeping up, but everybody is at the ball faster than you can turn around. That's the big difference. But this is your life and this is what you do now. Once you are a Mountaineer, it's not like in high school, where it is part-time. Playing football for West Virginia is an all-the-time thing."


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