Now, before our email boxes overflow with cries of ‘disloyal' and ‘negative', let me say that I'm just giving my honest opinion and assessment here. I've tried to take a good bit of time to look at each position, analyze the performance of the players returning there, and also look at some of the intangibles that made 2002 such a special year. Of course, reasonable disagreement is expected and encouraged! With that out of the way, let's take a look at the offense.
I'll start at quarterback, where Rasheed Marshall, Charles Hales and Blake Ladson return. They'll be augmented by incoming freshman Adam Bednarik and possibly one more quarterback recruit, but in all honesty this job is Rasheed's. The questions here are 1) can Rasheed stay healthy, and 2) can he improve in the passing game?
The first question is partly a matter of luck, but I think Rasheed is strong enough to withstand the hits he takes. He's also shifty enough that opposing defenses don't get a lot of big hits on him, so that helps him avoid wear and tear.
The second is much more difficult to answer. Rasheed has to work on throwing better from the pocket, and also on his accuracy, which suffered as the year went on. Rasheed's play will, in all likelihood, improve some, but will he be able to take a big enough step forward to make the passing game a weapon?
Next year's running game has garnered little concern from prognosticators, but there's no assuming that the 2003 WVU rushing attack will function at the same high level as 2002's. Quincy Wilson is back, and I don't doubt his ability for a second, but he also benefited greatly from the presence of Avon Cobourne in the past season. With Quincy going to the starting role next year, who will fill his shoes? Quincy will be much more effective if he has a backup that gets the 10-12 carries per game that he did last year.
I know all about the buzz around running back KayJay Harris, but I also always view jucos with a bit of a critical eye. You can count the number of jucos that made an immediate impact at WVU over the last ten years on one hand. I know that several juco players became contributors, and in some cases, standouts, but often they take a year of getting acclimated before they make a great impact. Also, it's not fair to place high expectations on a player that's never taken a Division 1 snap before.
The same holds true for WVU's talented freshman crop of backs. Erick Phillips and Jason Colson may well turn into outstanding players, but will they be ready for the grinding defenses of the Big East after a season of no game activity?
I have a lot of faith in Rick Trickett's ability to mold an offensive line, but there are serious holes to fill up front as well. Lance Nimmo's departure from the left tackle spot leaves a big gap in both on field performance and off field leadership. Zach Dillow and Ken Sandor also graduate, which leaves an even bigger hole in the middle of the line.
Trickett will need to find another left tackle and a center from a group of players that has some, but not a great deal, of game experience. Look for freshman Dan Mozes to challenge for time at guard, while Tim Brown could possibly slide down to center. That move would require Trickett to find two tackles from among his backups and returning players, which include Geoff Lewis, Ben Timmons, Justin Williams and Rod Olds. All in all, it's a daunting task. Expect some juco help at this position of any others on the offensive side of the ball.
At fullback, the devastating blocking talents of Moe Fofana return, and there is also talent available in the form of Hikee Johnson and Adam King, although neither got the chance to show much on the field this year. Johnson would provide an upgraded running threat from the position, and King is a hard nosed, aggressive hitter, but both will be under the gun to show those talents on the field next year.
This leads us to the wide receivers, the most puzzling group on the team. With a number of seemingly talented players at the position, the expectation was that at least a couple of them would break out and provide the passing attack with some serious weapons. Due to a combination of injuries, discipline issues and inconsistency, that never happened.
Many people are looking for Chris Henry and Brandon Myles, who sat out this year for academic reasons, to be the go-to guys next year. Counting on players who didn't even see the practice field for a year and haven't taken a live snap in almost two just isn't something that you want to do, especially with the level of competition WVU faces. Again, I'm not meaning to downgrade or rip on any individual players. Henry or Myles might become a pass catching threat on the level of a Larry Fitzgerald. A look back, however, shows that many, if not most, players who had to sit out a year often take another one to get fully back into the swing of playing the game. Travis Garvin is a perfect example of that.
Of the returning receivers, Miquelle Henderson and Aaron Neal both provide big targets, but have to improve their separation skills in order to become consistent threats. Travis Garvin, Dee Alston and John Pennington showed flashes of contribution, but again, improvement is needed if they are to be a big part of WVU's passing attack.
Looking back over the offense, there are a lot of ‘ifs'. If the passing game can improve. If the offensive line can be rebuilt. If a number of talented but unproved youngsters can step into starting roles, or at least provide quality backup minutes. If a solid backup quarterback can be found. If WVU can avoid turnovers again. As I've said in past preseason articles, all those ‘ifs' can't be expected to yield positive results. Of course, remember that I was just hoping for a 6-6 record this year too.
Up next, a look at the defense, to be followed by special teams.