Southern Vistas

Finally, the talk can stop and the action can start. The 2009 WVU football team will take the field for the first time as the season begins in earnest tomorrow afternoon with the first practice of fall camp.

But there's been plenty to talk about this summer for West Virginia fans. I'll do my best to address where the team stands with those issues as camp begins.

  • Tevita Finau

    Yes, I dared to type those two words. Sorry if you're tired of seeing them, especially because I personally can feel your pain.

    The "Will he or won't he" drama that has surrounded the man (who has to be the most noteworthy Hawaiian in Mountain State history) has largely been a creation of overzealous fans and the media that serves them.

    Finau, for all of the hype surrounding him, has yet to prove himself in a Division I college football game, and for all anyone knows at this point (hopefully a situation that will change tomorrow when head coach Bill Stewart will surely be asked about it) he never will.

    That's not to discount what Finau could mean for the Mountaineer program one day. But that day isn't likely to come this season even if he does suit up in the Old Gold and Blue tomorrow afternoon.

    Defensive line is hardly the position most worthy of worry going into the season. Scooter Berry and Chris Neild have proven their worth in the past, and Julian Miller gained plenty of experience a season ago.

    There's a myriad of other things fans could reasonably be fretting about at this point. A junior college transfer defensive lineman that would likely be a backup this year anyway isn't one of them.

  • Stewart's "Standards"

    So WVU was the No. 2 pick of the pundits at the Big East Conference's preseason media days last week.

    Forget for a moment how little that matters, both in terms of how it will effect the season itself and due to the fact that many people seemed to agree that Nos. 1-4 could have been picked from a hat and had as good a chance of being accurate.

    But in an otherwise innocuous radio interview, the coach said he was pleased to be "in the mix" in the preseason poll and added that he thought his team would slot in behind defending conference champion Cincinnati.

    Cue the Stew bashers, who (at least on this web site's message boards) insisted that this was a sign of lowered standards, that those few words were a sign that the second-year head coach was willing to accept mediocrity -- and further, that the program was headed firmly in that direction.

    Again, this is misguided. Stewart never said or implied that he would be happy to be "in the mix" at season's end -- only that he was pleased to see that the media thought enough of his team to put it as high as No. 2 in the preseason poll.

    And if we're being honest, second place isn't an unreasonable prediction for West Virginia this year in the Big East.

    This is a team that lost the most important player in school history -- a guy by the name of Pat White who now happens to play his football in the NFL. While Jarrett Brown may be a bit more experienced than the average backup quarterback, he's still "unproven" by the standards of many.

    It's hardly unreasonable to think that WVU is not the clear-cut best team in the Big East this season. However, it would be equally silly to think the same team isn't abundantly capable of winning the conference if it can address the questions that surround it heading into fall.

    Stewart simply recognized that fact and vocalized it publicly.

    That doesn't mean the team's standards have been lowered -- the head coach will still expect everything possible from his players.

  • The Real Issues

    If you've managed to avoid the hype about some of these extraneous issues, you probably know what I'm about to say here.

    These are the things that fans should be looking to know more about when they read reports and hear quotes from fall practice. They're likely the biggest keys that will determine how much success the Mountaineers can have this season.

    1. How quickly will the offensive line gel in front of Jarrett Brown?

    Even the best quarterback can't do anything without time to throw, and in the spring Brown had little time in the pocket on many occasions.

    Even the quarterback's sterling start to the Gold-Blue Spring Game was a sign of that fact, as the WVU offensive staff continually called the quickest of quick-hitter passes as not to allow even the second-team defense to pressure Brown.

    Most observers agree that the younger players on the offensive line have plenty of talent, but there is little substitute for experience at that particular position. WVU doesn't have much of that in place coming into the season.

    2. Will the special teams be a liability?

    There are big questions here, with kicker/punter Pat McAfee (whose punting leg was a massive weapon at times last season) departed and in the ranks of the NFL.

    Beyond that, there are still concerns about the kick coverage unit, which was among the nation's worst a year ago.

    Visions of Cincinnati receiver Mardy Gilyard running back the opening kickoff of last year's matchup at Milan Puskar Stadium must be dancing in Stewart's brain at night, especially since the head coach doubles as special teams coordinator.

    The special teams won't have to win games for WVU, but they must avoid losing them. Think back to the Boston College game at home in 2004. That's a nightmare scenario that the Mountaineers will hope to avoid.

    3. What kind of offense will Jeff Mullen run with Brown under center?

    While Mullen told me in the spring that people make too much of the differences between Brown and White (not the colors -- the quarterbacks), there is no doubting that the two have different (if only slightly different) skill-sets.

    Brown is a solid runner, but no quarterback has ever been as prolific a runner as White. It was perceived that White was not quite the thrower Brown is, but Mullen said that gap was more narrow than people realized.

    So does that mean the play-calling will be much the same as a season ago? This is one under-the-radar topic that I'm intrigued to watch to see how things develop this fall.

    4. How much more aggressive will the defense be, and can the cornerbacks handle being "on an island" in those situations?

    If you couldn't notice a theme in the player features that were written for this site in the past couple of weeks, I'll spell it out for you: the defensive staff says it plans to call blitzes more often this season, particularly in third down situations.

    While this tactic makes sense considering the fact that third downs were by far the biggest weakness of an otherwise solid WVU defense last season, it also means cornerbacks will have to play a bit more man coverage in key situations.

    If there's one position of relative "weakness" on the defense, I would argue it is the cornerback unit. Can those players handle what David Lockwood has called "dude coverage" (meaning "go cover that dude") in key situations?

    The answer to that question could go a long way in determining how successful the experiment with additional blitzing may or may not be.

    5. Can the team identify and develop a reliable short-yardage running back?

    There are a few candidates for a job that went largely unfilled a season ago (much to WVU's detriment in the Colorado and Pittsburgh losses), which has to be encouraging for Stewart and Mullen.

    Ryan Clarke has slimmed down to the satisfaction of the coaching staff, but still possesses the big body needed to rumble through tackles.

    Ricky Kovatch has seen spot duty in the past in short-yardage situations, and Jordan Roberts came on strong in a similar role towards the end of spring practice.

    Still, one of those three (or someone else entirely) has to step up and actually take the reigns -- one would think that third-down back by committee isn't exactly a desirable strategy to utilize.

    If the coaching staff becomes satisfied with the play of one of these three, it means the primary runners (Noel Devine and Tavon Austin?) will have fresher legs for the remainder of the games.

  • Fortunately, the time for all this talk has passed and what happens on the field in the next few weeks may bring us some answers.

    We'll have fall practice covered from every angle -- with analysis and breakdowns of the practices themselves, interviews with players and coaches and more.

    The season, mercifully, is here.

  • BlueGoldNews Top Stories