Coaches often talk about dealing with distractions, and the West Virginia football team is faced with a doozy in the form of the current accusations against a pair of potential starters on its defense.

Head coach Rich Rodriguez, who views distractions in the same manner that PETA looks at a steak dinner, had to be reasonably happy with the way his team had dealt with the preseason hype during fall camp. He also had to be pleased that only one player faced an extended absence from the playing field due to injury, even though several players had missed appreciable amounts of practice time. Overall, distractions were at as low a level as could be reasonably expected.

Sure, there were daily media requests, from both the local and national scene. Increased demands for his time also had to be dealt with – just part of the enormous list of duties and responsibilities a head coach has to face and work through. More meet and greets with donors, whose numbers have swelled with WVU's rise up the national rankings, also dotted his to do list. But for the most part, there weren't many major issues with the players, and the team appeared focused on football. Everything on the field seemed under control.

Now, however, the charges against linebacker Ellis Lankster have made those mostly sunny skies cloud over with tones of gray. Rodriguez, when he speaks again on the issue (interviews are scheduled for Wednesday evening), will doubtless talk of not letting the incident affect his team, and of keeping the remaining players' focus on preparing for the upcoming season opener, which is just 11 days hence. That's a coach's job, and Rodriguez can't be blamed for not dwelling on it, because it's certainly not something he can control. But there is no doubt that this entire situation, however it plays out, will be a big distraction – and surprisingly enough, the media won't be the biggest factor in that regard.

Sure, there will be questions asked, and coverage of every official proceeding will be on the agenda of many media outlets. Many of the questions asked will be repetitive, and some will be unanswerable. But the greater percentage of them will be directed at the coach or other West Virginia officials, and thus the players, who will only be available for interviews a couple more times before the game, will be shielded from the distractions – at least in part.

There will be shots taken at WVU, however, by some, who will question the succession of Adam Jones, Chris Henry and now Thomas and Lankster. The words written about that line of players might not have to be addressed, but they certainly will sting. And whether what is written, blogged or opined is factual or not, it will still serve as another distraction. While many coaches and players maintain that they don't read the papers or watch TV news, in some manner these words will filter back to the players and coaches. Dealing with those sorts of items can certainly be draining on a mental level.

The bigger distractions come on the field, though. Who will replace Thomas and Lankster if they are unavailable to play? West Virginia will have to prepare for that possibility now, as the arraignment for the pair isn't set until September 10 – following the first two games of the season. So, in the next seven practices, the Mountaineer coaching staff must identify the players that will be stepping in to these slots, and get them ready to play. Think that's not an upset to the normal routine? WVU was getting ready to head into game preparation for its opener, and now has to identify and prepare those that will likely fill the spots of the accused pair. You got it – that's a huge distraction.

Ellis Lankster
Of course, the mindset that will be espoused by the players and coaches will go something like this: ‘We have to move forward, and people will have to step up and fill those roles.' ‘Things like this happen. It's just like an injury. We have other players here that are good players, and we will make the necessary adjustments.' ‘We have to focus on what happens on the field.' All of those statements are certainly valid, and they reflect the attitude that the coaches will be trying to instill in their players this week.

No matter how well they take those lessons to heart, there's not much doubt that this could be more than a bump in the road. The path to a BCS bowl bid is fraught with peril, and one critical injury, or a couple of bad bounces, can derail even the strongest of teams. And when the wound is self-inflicted, in some ways it can be all the more painful.

Certainly, this incident isn't going to cause West Virginia football to shut down. WVU will be on the field next Saturday, and it will put a defense on the field – one that hopes to be better all-around than the one of 2006. But on top of all of the challenges that already lay ahead, this incident is certainly not a welcome addition. It's something that can't be ignored, either, as the ramifications of the pair's absence will certainly affect the preparations for the first couple of games, if not more. And that uncertainty, until the case is resolved, could be the biggest distraction of them all.

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