Stewart, still dripping with sweat after the three-hour workout in the sweltering August heat, welcomed 104 players to the practice field on Saturday afternoon, made up of 54 on the offensive side, eight specialists, and 42 defenders. While the numbers defensively are not where Stewart would like them to be, Jeff Casteel's charges nevertheless left the head coach impressed on day one.
"Right now, if they continue to play how they are, they will lead us in from Lakeview on the (first) bus for our first game against Villanova," Stewart said. "They have earned the right, and are playing very well after having a great spring.
"The first part of practice I spent on the defensive side of the field. It was a lot of fun to go down and see (the defensive coaches). It was a treat for me to watch, and something that I hadn't gotten a chance to do much of last spring."
Led by a deep and talented linebacking corps anchored by the likes of Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy, the Mountaineer defense does not look to be short on talent. In terms of playing experience, however, there are still questions left unanswered, most notably in the secondary.
With that in mind, sophomore Brandon Hogan – a high school quarterback who played slot receiver last season – spent the first day of camp working out with the defensive backs. Stewart stressed that at this point, the move is purely experimental, but that Hogan does have the athleticism and ability needed to boost a thin group of cornerbacks which currently boasts only senior Ellis Lankster as a likely starter.
"(Hogan) could be a hit in the secondary," Stewart said. "If not, we can move him right back to offense."
Just as the backfield is thin on defense, the same can be said on the other side of the ball as well. Quarterback is all but set with returning starter Pat White and veteran backup Jarrett Brown. At tailback, however, only sophomore starter Noel Devine looks to be game-ready. First-year backs Zach Hulse, Terence Kerns and Mark Rodgers will be given every opportunity to claim the rights to the No. 2 job behind Devine, but after one day, Stewart is still searching for the right understudy.
"We don't have a tailback yet behind Noel Devine, so if there is anyone in this room that would like to come out to camp, some of you guys look like you're in pretty good shape," Stewart quipped.
Each of the backs brings something to the table. Rodgers, built similarly to Devine, brings quickness and acceleration. Kerns combines physicality and sprinter's speed with an NFL-type body. Hulce, built similarly to Avon Cobourne, does not lose yards and has the durability and dependability to be a capable complement to Devine. None of the three, though, have ever taken a snap at the collegiate level. And certainly, at least not yet, none can match the production of Devine.
"(Devine) just spoils everything," Stewart shrugged. "It's like my older brother. He was the model kid, and I was the knucklehead. No. 7 spoils everything and makes it look so easy. (The newcomers) are just not ready yet."
The good news, at least for today, is that the season opener against Villanova is still four weeks away. Between now and then, Stewart will be watching closely for the emergence of one or more of the aforementioned backs.
"We better get crankin'," he said. "We better get our t's crossed and our I's dotted because we've got to find us a backup. It will come, but we'd like it to come faster than normal."