Before we get started, understand that these are some very early observations and thoughts. They are valid now, but as spring and fall camp progress, who knows? Some areas that look like weaknesses could turn into potential strengths – and vice versa. So don't jump off the cliff just yet, there's still a lot of prep time left.
1) The passing game should look substantially different
This doesn't mean that WVU won't throw wide receiver screens any more. With good runners like Bradley Starks and (hopefully) Jock Sanders on the receiving end, the Mountaineers will throw the ball down the line of scrimmage. It's just not going to be the only weapon in the arsenal. Slot receivers are also going to get the change to catch the ball going vertically, tight ends like Tyler Urban and Will Johnson should get a couple of chances per game, and wide receivers, assuming they can get separation, should get a few more downfield shots as well. Passing in the red zone should also be another weapon that emerges.
The thing to remember is that WVU won't go into a game with a preconceived notion of how many passes it wants to throw. The offense is based on one premise above all – take what the defense gives it. If there are just six or seven in the box, the Mountaineers are going to run it. Therefore, judgments shouldn't be made on the number of passes West Virginia throws this year, but rather on the effectiveness and adaptability of the offense. That's the goal, and for now, the work is underway to make it a reality.
2) Noel Devine should pop more big plays
This doesn't mean he will get more carries – just that he may run the ball more effectively. It was no secret that Devine struggled with making reads and correct cuts on stretch plays in 2008. He was much more effective at getting the ball deep in the backfield and running vertically into the hole. And while WVU won't be junking the stretch, it will try to get him the ball in sets and with plays that he can more naturally take advantage of. If he can clear the line of scrimmage on a direct run, he's going to rack up big yards. And if he can become more effective at running the stretch, defenses won't be able to load up on one type of running play. He has shown flashes of this during his interrupted spring to date, but if he can continue to improve it, WVU's running game, from a position other than quarterback, could be very effective again.
3) There are enough weapons at fullback to build a power running game
Will Clarke has snared the bulk of the short yardage carries this spring, and while he needs to be a bit more consistent in getting low and running behind his pads, he has shown the ability to bulldoze out a yard or two on his own. Add in Ricky Kovatch and Max Anderson, who have shown better blocking skills, and WVU finally will have a third down and short yardage play that isn't a quarterback keeper. While this isn't a flashy development, it is one that is vital to converting third downs and keeping drives alive.
4) Receiving is still a work in progress
The numbers and talent pool still aren't deep at wideout, and newcomers can't be counted on to set the house on fire on day one. Logan Heastie has show flashes of his catching ability, but blocking is still in the early stages of development for the highly-regarded wideout. Before anyone jumps off that cliff that was mentioned up front, it's natural to see issues like that with freshmen. Very few players light it up from the outset of their careers. Check back on Aug. 20, and let's see how he has progressed.
And it's not just on him. The absence of Sanders cripples the receiving corps, and while it does give reps to other pass catchers, it also kills the chance to develop timing between Sanders and Brown. That's vital for route running, timing patters and quick slants, and the missed time is a big negative. Think of last year's spring lost time along the offensive line, when three starters were out due to injury and surgery recovery, and the importance of building that cohesiveness is plainly apparent. And no matter how much talent arrives in the fall (and there are some good players on the way), they'll have the same growing pains.
On the plus side, Wes Lyons has shown some good skills in catching passes from the slot, and along the back of the end zone. Gino Crump has flashed potential as well. If they can improve their consistency, West Virginia will have the weapons for a solid passing game. But that's not a given just yet.
5) Blitz-happy fans will be pleased
Without the ability to create consistent pass pressure from a three-man front, the move is on to increase blitzing. Or, more accurately, the effectiveness of blitzing. West Virginia has often come up just short in getting blitzers home to the quarterback over the past couple of seasons, and the emphasis this year is getting more direct routes and faster players on the rush. J.T. Thomas demonstrated that amply in the first officiated scrimmage of the spring, as he recorded four sacks and blew up a like number of plays. West Virginia will run more games and blitz from more angles this year, and will utilize its experience on the front eight to do so.
For example, on one scrimmage play last Saturday, the Mountaineers defense shifted four times before settling into its final alignment. That created confusion up front, and lead to another hurried play by the offense. While it's not a magic bullet for pressure issues, it is another piece of the puzzle that can help the defense improve in passing situations.
6) Brandon Hogan can be a star
Hogan showed early aptitude for the cornerback spot last year, and its clear that he has continued his improvement every day this spring. He is playing much more physically, and stands off even the biggest wide receivers in one-on-one drills. He's a fierce competitor, and he could be the anchor for a secondary that is still young and looking for leadership.
7) Like most teams, areas of both strength and concern are apparent
Linebackers? Look great, especially when Reed Williams is on the field. Defensive line? Should be very good. Jarrett Brown? Showing everything that was expected of him. Offensive line? Still working to build cohesiveness and consistency. Kickoffs? Distance is now a concern, along with coverage.
The real key to the final two weeks of spring, and to the fall, is a simple one. How many of the questions will be answered in a positive manner? If the majority find solutions, WVU can challenge for the Big East title. If three or four key areas are still struggles, however, the Mountaineers won't be in the chase as November turns to December. The same is true for every other contender in the league, however, so it's a race for development and improvement – even though we are only halfway through spring.