"Every first practice of the spring and the fall is pretty spirited and competitive," I thought the effort was outstanding. The execution wasn't. They did some good things. You could tell that our veterans understand the tempo. Our new guys are a little confused, but it will get better."
Scholarship defensive backs Ellis Lankster and Sidney Glover are going through their first practices in a Mountaineer uniform after joining the program in January. In addition to the new players, Rodriguez has three new assistant coaches on his staff. Offensive line coach Greg Frey and quarterbacks coach Rod Smith both came to West Virginia in January from Big East rival South Florida. Last week, Rodriguez announced the hiring of Tony Dews as the new wide receivers coach. With several new faces hitting the practice field for the first time, one might expect there to be miscue here or there. Not so, according to the head coach, who noted that practice actually ran pretty smooth.
"It takes a couple weeks for them to get used to our practices," he acknowledged. "It's different anytime you come to a different environment or a different staff. You've got to adjust to the way they practice. The first couple of practices are the toughest. It was pretty smooth today given that we have three new coaches on offense. I suspect it will get easier and easier as we go along."
Rodriguez, who in past years spent much of his time in practice with the quarterbacks, was very hands on with the wide receivers today. Given that Dews has been on the job for less than a week, that shouldn't come as a surprise.
"I'm going to do that until Coach Dews gets acclimated to what we're doing," said Coach Rod. "I planned on doing that anyway. I feel pretty comfortable doing that. I've had basically the same offense for 15 or 16 years."
Many of today's questions were centered around West Virginia's offensive backfield. Junior running back Steve Slaton, coming off of an All-American season, will be limited in the spring while recovering from surgery, but still made his presence felt on the field today.
"Steve likes to work," Rodriguez said, praising his Heisman Trophy candidate. "He's a competitive guy, and he's certainly not one that looks to get out of anything. He wants to take all the reps. He won't take as many reps when we put pads on, obviously, but he can learn a lot of things this Spring as well."
Behind Slaton, a familiar face has returned to the fold after leaving the team in the middle of the 2005 regular season. Jason Gwaltney is in the program as a walk-on, and took part in practice wearing a No. 27 jersey. Though the first time Gwaltney came to WVU was greeted with high acclaim and even higher expectations, Rodriguez is taking his second helping of Gwaltney day by day.
"We'll see if he can make the commitment on and off the field. He's never been a problem on the field. He's had problems in the classroom. He's not taking a whole lot of reps because we have to make sure he's reliable in the classroom first."
Up front, the Mountaineers must replace All-American center Dan Mozes. The Washington, Pa. native leaves WVU as one of the school's all-time greats on the offensive line, and filling his shoes on the field will be no small task. Junior Mike Dent, another Western Pennsylvania native, will have the first crack at taking over for Mozes.
"He's a guy that's played some, and knows the system. Now he's got to be the guy, or at least attempt to be the guy. He's gotten a lot stronger in the weight room, and now he's got to carry it over to the field.
"He's an athletic guy. He was a great basketball player, and he's a tough guy too. He should know our system, because we're not changing a whole lot."
Looking at his team overall, Rodriguez feels that there are two goals every spring that he would like to accomplish before breaking for summer.
"One, our guys have to get better individually with their techniques and their assignmentsm," he explained. "Two, we have to get better in our units: offense, defense, and special teams. We're going to try a few new things that we think can help us.
"It's the same whether you're coming off of a great season or a poor season. You want to accomplish the same things every spring."
Though the month of March is synonymous with college basketball, Rodriguez and company are ready for their own version of March Madness to take place over the coming weeks.