West Virginia is making its final preparations for the trip to Colorado for Thursday's primetime game at Folsom Field. Making those preparations somewhat easier is the news that senior linebacker Reed Williams, who missed the season's first two games while recovering from dual offseason shoulder surgeries, will finally make his long-awaited 2008 debut.
According to Stewart, West Virginia's defensive heart and soul will suit up and play against Colorado.
"He's going to go. He's going to play," Stewart said on Monday afternoon during his weekly press conference at the Puskar Center. "We talked yesterday. Reed, myself and the medical people. He's going to give it a go."
Williams led the Mountaineers with 107 total tackles last season, starting all 13 games and garnering Fiesta Bowl Defensive MVP honors in West Virginia's 48-28 win over Oklahoma in January. However, torn labrums in each shoulder required separate operations, which sidelined him for all of spring drills and much of fall camp in addition to the aforementioned two games.
With his return, Williams not only brings 13 career starts and three seasons of experience to a youth-filled defense, but also a handful of intangibles which would give the defense a psychological lift as well.
"He brings a presence to us," Stewart said. "It brings an excitement to us and a little spark to us on defense that will help us on defense."
Williams's re-entry into the lineup will move senior Mortty Ivy back to the Sam (strongside) linebacker position. Ivy started against Villanova at Sam before moving to the middle for WVU's loss at East Carolina last weekend. Sophomore J.T. Thomas will start at the Will as usual.
Should Williams's shoulders not be up to the task, however, he would preserve a possible medical redshirt so long as he does not play in any of West Virginia's final eight games. The Moorefield, W.Va. native has not used a redshirt during his three seasons in Morgantown, playing sparingly on special teams as a true freshman in 2005 before moving into his defensive role as a sophomore.
"He's just one guy, but he's one special guy," Stewart said. "I left it up to him and our medical people, and he feels like he can go now. I think he's ready to go. It will be good to have ol' Reed out there."
With 12 days between games, Stewart and his staff have had plenty of time to watch film of Colorado, which ran its record to 2-0 last weekend with a come-from-behind victory over Eastern Washington.
"Offensively, I have always been a big fan and admirer of Coach Hawkins. His son, Cody the quarterback, is just an extension of his dad and his staff on the field," Stewart explained. "He knows where to go with the ball. He knows what the offense is all about. That being said, you'd think that a guy like that would freewheel and take chances with the ball. The young man does a great job of staying within the framework of his dad's offense, and that's really nice to see. You just hate to be going against him.
"Josh Smith brings an exciting element to their offense on those orbit sweeps and when he catches the ball and runs," he said of the speedy sophomore. "He's had 200 yards on four kickoff returns I believe. One was a 93-yarder, and that means that in his other three he's still getting 107 yards. So, he's over 30 (yards) every time he (returns a kick) if you add in the 93-yarder, he's over 50 (yards) every time he catches a kickoff return. Also, on punt returns he does a very good job on that. He does a nice job."
Thus, Stewart – who also serves as WVU's Special Teams Coordinator – has certainly been racking his brain in looking for the best way to contain Smith on kickoffs and punts.
"Our punt team and our kickoff team really have to strain and work to keep this young man contained," he acknowledged. "I showed them the film on him this week. I don't know what he runs 40-wise, but he's fast."
Smith's speed and skill in the open field is simply a microcosm of the Buffaloes as a whole. Stewart repeatedly used the word "exciting" to describe this week's opponent.
"Apparently, the word came from out west that we were fast," Stewart said. "Well, they're exciting. They're very, very exciting. They make plays. They're fun to watch when you don't play them. They're one of those kind of teams if you know what I mean. So, we're going to have to really be on our finest disciplines and have our t's crossed and our I's dotted because they're going to present a lot of problems for us."
West Virginia has struggled mightily to get opposing teams off the field on third down in each of its first two games. In order to win on Thursday night, the Mountaineers must improve drastically in this area. Currently, WVU is allowing the opposition to convert 50 percent of their third down opportunities.
To shore up this problem, Stewart would like to see his defense improve earlier in the drive, specifically on first down.
"Those six, seven and eight yard gains have to stop. That is first and foremost. I want to see us attack," he said. "I think if we, defensively, can stop them for a reasonable amount on first down, then the second down call is to get you back on schedule. If you're looking at second and eight or second and 10, it's a little bit tighter. Then, your third down call becomes more crucial. I want our defense to be in that flow, just getting in the flow of the game, coming downhill and attacking but not worrying about the big play."
"That's what we have to do," he continued. "We have to stop them on first down and get the third downs under 50 percent. No more eight for 16. Then, we'll be OK."
West Virginia will hold a late practice on Monday evening, then practice Tuesday morning before flying to Colorado in the afternoon. Arriving in Boulder two days prior to the game will allow for plenty of time to adjust accordingly to both the altitude and the time differential.