Springing Forward To Avoid A Fall Back

West Virginia's football team will be greeted with its highest expectations in years. But that's tempered by the sheer load of spring practice work that awaits a program with three new coaches and multiple questions on both sides of the ball.

The Mountaineers, likely a top five preseason pick for the 2007 season, must find replacements for two All-Big East offensive linemen, settle the cornerback and overall secondary problems of last season and develop better depth, one of the lacking aspects that remains to separate WVU from programs that annually rank in the upper echelon.

Other goals, according to head coach Rich Rodriguez, are to find reshirt players able to contribute in the fall, identify walk-on kickers that can play behind Pat McAfee and to improve upon technique and fundamentals. WVU will also experiment with players in new positions and more and varied special teams work than they did over the last offseasons. The final piece, and one of the lesser ones, is the addition of new plays within the odd stack and spread schemes on defense and offense, respectively.

"I'm excited," Rodriguez said of his upcoming seventh season at West Virginia. "We have used all of the offseason to study ourselves and find and identify problems. The players will finish workouts this week, then be tested before spring practice begins. There won't by any major overhauls, but we will make a few moves."

Those include, among others, switching tight end Selvish Capers to offensive tackle, moving Greg Davis from cornerback to safety and using Owen Schmitt at both fullback, where the senior starts, and as a tight end. Quarterback Nate Sowers will take reps at wideout as Patrick White and Jarrett Brown share the No. 1 snaps. Consider, too, that West Virginia has injury questions with Steve Slaton's wrist – improving as expected – and along the offensive line, where it must work with new position coach Greg Frey to hone a front that could be missing as many as three players for spring drills as Frank Carduff (knee), Greg Isdaner (shoulder) and Jake Figner (hernia) recover.

That's in addition to trying to identify a new center and guard, which is why Rodriguez, who usually helps coach the quarterbacks, will spend more time with the overall offense during spring practices. That leaves first-year assistant Rod Smith, who came with Frey from rival South Florida, alone with the quarterbacks. But the experience there should render that a lesser problem. Other issues are fusing the backlog of corners – Boogie Allen and Guesly Dervil will combine with Scout.com four-star junior college transfer Ellis Lankster to challenge four returning lettermen – with the linebackers, some of which might play along the defensive line as ends, and the hybrid safeties, which will have better depth with Davis' move. Rodriguez notes, however, that the changes are typical of all teams searching for the best 11 players on both sides and that nothing is permanent and, indeed, everything is day-to-day.

"We want to see who can do what," Rodriguez said. "Some guys, like Davis, heck, he hasn't made a play yet. He hasn't made a tackle or a pick or anything. There will be a learning curve with the new coaches as well. But those new guy will learn pretty quickly. Some, like Greg Frey and Rod Smith, were in similar styles. (New wideouts coach) Tony Dews, he is starting from scratch. I'll help him coach the receivers."

The expectations – one proclaimed pundit has West Virginia meeting USC in the national championship after completing a 12-0 season – are high, but not incredibly lofty when compared with three of the last four years, when the Mountaineers were thrice ranked in the top 10, and twice in the top five, to start the season. That's an indicator that Mountaineer football has arrived on the national scene, though it must arguably begin to win outright Big East championships to satisfy a fan base that will expect nothing less than an unblemished regular season, and perhaps a shot at a national title.

"It's no longer a big deal to ranked high or at the top of the Big East," Rodriguez said. "It's not a big deal with other programs like USC and Texas and Florida. It's the same way here. We have had the hype and the expectation. It's old news and old hat. Our guys are used to it. Now, there is a certain level of commitment that they have to make. They know that.

"I do hope the fans are excited. I expect season tickets to sell out and that we would set records for attendance. We have three weeknight games, and we have had some of the most viewed midweek games in the history of ESPN, like the Louisville game last year. I would think that would continue when we play Maryland and Louisville on Thursdays and South Florida down there on Friday."

West Virginia actually had more appearances on ESPN than any other program last year. Part of that was the Big East's weakness, perceived or otherwise, as it was placed in the midweek time slots. But part of that was WVU's success and the desire of others to watch players like Patrick White and Steve Slaton in an explosive offense. The Mountaineers come off consecutive top-10 finishes and have played in a program-first four straight New Year's Day bowls. The 38-12 mark over the last four seasons is the best in school history; West Virginia is 22-3 over the past two years.

Spring drills open March 5. The first two sessions will be in shorts before the Mountaineers put on the pads March 9. The first scrimmage is March 10. All practices and scrimmages, save the April 7 Gold-Blue intrasquad game, are closed to the general public. The kickoff for the spring scrimmage finale' is 12:30 p.m. Admission is $5. Proceeds again benefit the WVU Children's Hospital.

Notes: The early start is due to West Virginia replacing its turf surface in the offseason. The rubber pellets will be saved to use on the new surface. Rodriguez said he is unsure what will happen with the old turf. The Mountaineers will hold their annual speed and strength camp May 19. Registration is 8-8:45 a.m. with camp starting at 9 a.m. and concluding at 2 p.m. The cost is $60 before April and $70 thereafter. Groups of 10 or more receive a $55 per person rate. More info can be obtained by calling the strength staff at 304-293-4459. Former WVU tailback Quincy Wilson will hold his second annual "Q's Stars" camp the same day. It is $35 per camper and will be held in Wilson's hometown of Weirton. Online info can be obtained at www.QuincyWilson.com and by calling 304-224-1594.

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