Learning The Ropes

When Bill Stewart took over as head football coach at West Virginia, he vowed to create a coaching staff full of people with ties to his home state.

One of those former Mountaineers that were brought back was Dale Wolfley who was coaching at Phoenix College, a juco that Wolfley, a former offensive line standout, built into an Arizona power. In returning to his alma mater, "Wolf" sent some players before him, including sophomore Courtney Stuart.

Stuart had an excellent season at Phoenix, where he recorded 56 tackles, four forced fumbles, and one interception in 2007. He was selected as honorable mention all-Western States Football League for his performance.

Stuart redshirted his first year at Phoenix, thus he had three years of eligibility remaining when he enrolled at West Virginia. The transition from junior college to the top level of Division I is a difficult one, however, and even though Stuart, like many other players making the jump, was confident in his ability, he learned the differences during an up and down initial campaign. In 2008, he saw playing time in 11 games, recording six tackles, most of which came on special teams. He also battled injury, missing four weeks of the season due to a right knee sprain.

"My knee has been great," said Stuart, who is looking forward to a more productive year in 2009. "We had a bye week last year and then the following week I was back (on the field). Everything has been well."

The strongly built safety, who played the position at Phoenix College as well as in high school, admits that it is a little more difficult now playing at the Division I level.

"(The position) is a lot different," admitted Stuart. "It's a whole new experience for me. It's unlike anything I've seen before. We play three safeties and back where I'm from we do two coverage. It's a lot different ball game but I'm learning how to get used to that."

On top of his work at safety, Stuart also saw significant time on kickoff coverage with special teams a year ago. That unit was a major disappointment for the Mountaineers last season – the obvious crack in an otherwise solid special teams unit. It's something that has to be corrected if West Virginia is to achieve its goals in 2009 – double digit wins and a major bowl game.

"I feel like as a unit of kickoffs we struggled because there were a lot of new guys," said Stuart. "This year we're looking up. There are a lot of younger guys coming in but there are a lot of older guys that are going to be there on special teams. I feel like that's an important part of the game. Coach Stewart bring a lot of energy and experience to the special teams table, and he's not going to let us back off."

Whether energy and experience are the keys to improved coverage remains to be seen, but players such as Stuart, with the speed to get downfield, the strength to fight off blocks and the ability to finish with crisp tackles, are certainly important factors. Put enough of them together, and the coverage unit could be a strength instead of the gaping hole it was a year ago.

In addition to his potential role as a leader on that squad, Stuart is using the summer as a time to compete for his spot as a bandit safety. During the spring, Stuart was second of the depth chart at that position behind veteran Boogie Allen.

"I feel a lot more comfortable than I did last year," admitted Stuart. "I feel like I've gotten way more adjusted, especially in the offseason. I have gotten to go through a whole season of spring and summer workouts. I'm a lot more comfortable and ready for the season. I feel like as a unit we're competing. It's very competitive. There are 13 guys competing for three spots."

The "13 guys" are coached by Steve Dunlap, another native West Virginian brought back into the Mountaineer fold by Stewart. Stuart is confident in Dunlap's coaching abilities and knowledge of the position.

"He's a great guy," said Stuart. "He brings a lot of energy to the scene and he will get on you if we mess up on our reads. He has a lot of knowledge and he's a great guy to learn from."

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