Although the hysteria over West Virginia's pass defense took on a life of its own in the latter part of the season, there is undeniably room for betterment. A number of young players with talent will certainly get lots of instructional work and evaluation during the month of March, and the hope is that better competition at the back three positions in the defense will help.
"I think they need to push each other," secondary coach and new recruiting coordinator Tony Gibson said. "The best thing for everyone back there is competition. Anytime they can compete against each other and get better every day, that's going to help the football team."
To push returning starters Quinton Andrews, Vaughn Rivers and Antonio Lewis, Gibson will be looking at a number of potential candidates. Guesly Dervil and Boogie Allen return after getting their feet wet in 2006, and junior college transfer Ellis Lankster will also be counted on to provide immediate help. The spring will also be critical for Kent Richardson, who has had uneven progression over his career.
"We threw Boogie and Guesly into the fire in the Cincinnati game, and they made some plays, and they made some mistakes, just like any young player," Gibson said. "I think the further they get in the spring, they will improve. They played so many plays last year, including on the nickel and dime packages, that I think they will continue to get better."
Although pass defense certainly doesn't begin and end with the corners and free safety, it certainly could be bolstered with more consistent play. Even if the starters don't change, the increased competition and depth should allow that to happen in 2007. While it will be a work in progress, look for better play from the deep three as the season goes along.
2) Who will back up Steve Slaton at superback?
With Slaton being held out of contact work as his surgically repaired wrist heals (it's progressing well), there will be plenty of carries for the backups vying for the number two spot.
Of course, Owen Schmitt is always available as a backup and as a second option in the two back set, but the Mountaineer coaching staff wants to have a reliable number two in place to lessen the load on Schmitt, who was battered at the end of last season after a year's worth of collisions. Ed Collington, Eddie Davis and Jetavious Best will all be under the microscope in the spring as they compete for a position that could get a number of carries this fall.
Davis, who had a good day against Eastern Washington before suffering an ankle injury that resulted in a redshirt, blends speed and moves, and is dangerous in the open field. Collington is a north-south runner with plenty of speed as well, while Best, the smallest of the three, packs a surprising amount of power to go along with his quickness. Each has differing strengths, which makes this a very interesting battle.
Collington could have gotten a leg up in this race last year, but battled ankle problems and missed numerous games. Tabbed to start in the Gator Bowl, he instead backed up Slaton after a late decision was made to put him in the lineup, and he finished with six carries for 27 yards in that role. Best made great strides during the latter part of the year, and has put himself into position to challenge for playing time as well.
At this point, it's tough to pick an expected winner. Collington and Davis appear more suited for the one-cut-and-go style favored by the offense, but that certainly doesn't put Best out of the picture. Whoever emerges from the pack will have to fend off some serious competition, which has to make assistant coach Calvin Magee quite content. By the time fall rolls around, however, WVU should again be well-stocked and ready to rock at running back.
Who will replace Brandon Myles as the primary outside receiving threat?
The obvious answer here is Darius Reynaud, but the fact that he plays in the slot, not on the outside, makes him sort of ineligible for the intent of this question. Other than during the Chris Henry years, and the last half of last year, West Virginia has searched for a consistent outside receiver that could stretch the field, make big plays on long passes, and open up underneath routes for the slots.
The obvious candidate is lanky Wes Lyons, who has the frame to fend off smaller defenders and be a dominant downfield presence. While not possessing the speed of Myles, Lyons could offset that with his size and ability to catch the ball above defensive backs. Past the returning sophomore, however, there are as many questions as answers. Tito Gonzales is an outstanding blocker who carved himself a place in the rotation, and Dorrell Jalloh etched his name in Mountaineer lore with a pair of huge two-point conversions in overtimes over the past two seasons, but neither has shown the ability to shake coverage consistently. Redshirt freshman John Maddox and perpetually-injured Darren Brownlee could get chances as well, but for now the situation here is cloudy at best.
Will the coaching staff turnover affect a team that is shooting for the top of the collegiate football ladder?
Probably not. Make that, almost certainly not. With head coach Rich Rodriguez sticking close to the roots of his coaching tree in new hires (quarterbacks coach Rod Smith played for him at Glenville and was a graduate assistant for him as well, while offensive line coach Greg Frey obviously came with a recommendation from Smith), there shouldn't be many problems in the new faces assimilating themselves into the coaching staff. Frey has run zone blocking schemes, and Smith is obviously very familiar with the Mountaineer offense, so the learning curve should be lessened. As an added bonus, both coaches studied WVU's defense during their game preparations for South Florida, so they could also prove to be a valuable resource when West Virginia does its "self-scout" and looks for ways to improve its owns schemes and performance.
While there's always an adjustment period for new faces, the spring should provide plenty of time for Smith, Frey and the third, as yet unnamed, coach to work their way into the system. It would be a huge stretch to predict any sort of problems stemming from these moves. Smith and Frey have proven themselves as quality coaches in the Big East, and should have only minimal adjustments to make as they assimilate themselves into the West Virginia staff.
Will WVU be able to generate a more consistent pass rush?
Like questions concerning the wideouts, this seems to be a perennial query in our spring preview. And just like the defenders who received some unjustified criticism for their role in a pass defense that wasn't as bad as some suggested, the pass rushers also got a bit more than their fair share of knocks.
A year ago, WVU recorded 31 sacks. That figure tied them with Cincinnati at 38th place in the NCAA rankings out of 119 schools, which is, by any measure, a solid placing. What the Mountaineers must do, however, is generate more pressure, if not more takedowns, by its front three when they rush alone. It must also get to the quarterback more quickly when it brings blitzers from the linebacker, spur and bandit positions. A year ago, many blitzes came up just a half-step short – had those players gotten home a bit more quickly, West Virginia might have ended up in the mid-40s in sacks.
Several different things will be tried this spring to make those hopes a reality. Some position changes, including a look at Johnny Holmes at linebacker and Reed Williams in the middle, will be evaluated in an effort to get more speed on the field. Some tweaking of alignments will also be looked at to give the base 3-3-5 some different looks as well.
However, in the end, much of this will have to come from the front line. Will Keilen Dykes, a stalwart at nose, ramp up his pass rush a notch? Can a redshirt freshman like Marcus Broxie, or a growing newcomer like a James Ingram provide that boost? Like "lockdown" corners, a great defensive pass-rushing end is among the most rare of breeds in the college game. Developing one is even tougher.