Transition Time

Year three is often a benchmark for a head football coach in a not-so-new position, and that is apparently the prevailing view for WVU mentor Bill Stewart

There remain a number of West Virginia players from the Rich Rodriguez regime, but the transition to the Bill Stewart Era hits a crossroads this year.

There is a new sheriff in town, with former quarterback Oliver Luck having replaced Ed Pastilong as athletic director ... so, in a sense, Stewart must audition all over again as football coach.

Stewart's easy manner helped West Virginia avoid a disaster that could have resulted from Rich Rodriguez's messy exit for Michigan, but Stewart has not yet had that 10-victory season that became the standard under Rodriguez.

Now, Stewart is running his own offense with his own quarterback, sophomore Geno Smith, who got his feet wet last season. Smith now takes over on a team that appears capable of winning the Big East, if he can just keep himself mistake free.

"You go as your quarterback goes," Stewart said.

If the offensive line, which returns four starters and adds a great deal of depth that it didn't have last year, improves as expected the offense could be explosive.

While everyone knows the talents of running back Noel Devine, who gained 1,477 yards last season, he will get help from fullback Ryan Clarke and his future replacement, Tavon Austin, who will mostly play wideout this year to get his skills on the field.

Add Austin to Jock Sanders as another big-play wide receiver ... and the table is set to score a lot of points.

"We have to make the defense cover the field more, not gang up on Noel," Stewart said, indicating he will diversify his attack as much as possible this year.

"Remember, Noel is only 176 pounds. He's not (former Pitt back) 'Shady' McCoy or (current Pitt back) Dion Lewis. Do you give him the ball 35 times?" Stewart said.

The defense might even be better with three legitimate All-American candidates, headed by 6-5 safety Robert Sands. Throw in Chris Neild at the nose and cornerback Brandon Hogan, and the Mountaineers are going to be difficult to move the football on.

If there are any questions on defense it is whether Pat Lazear can do the job at middle linebacker.

The coaching staff reorganized to help improve special teams, especially kickoff coverage, and you have to believe it will be better with as much attention as it has gotten. The return game should be excellent with Austin and maybe even Devine running back kickoffs, with Hogan and maybe Sanders returning punts.

Competition in camp is open for a punter, but Tyler Betancurt, whose winning field goal against Pitt made him a kicking legend at WVU, returns after healing an injury in the spring.

NOTES, QUOTES

  • The NCAA accused West Virginia of five major secondary rules violations, many of which took place on former coach Rich Rodriguez's watch, between 2005 and 2009. Coach Bill Stewart, an assistant for Rodriguez promoted to head coach, is also cited in the investigation which states managers, coaching grad assistants and some football players practiced beyond NCAA limits. The violations would be very similar to the "excessive" practice accusations against Rodriguez at Michigan.

    Athletic director Oliver Luck said the university has added guidelines and implemented new measures to avoid further issues exceeding practice limitations.

  • It would take a monster season for Noel Devine to become WVU's No. 1 all-time rusher, but he's certainly capable of having one. Devine enters the season No. 5 on the school's all-time rushing chart with 3,381 yards, which puts him 1,783 yards behind all-time leader Avon Cobourne, who finished with 5,154 yards. Devine rushed for 1,477 yards last year.

  • WVU had one coaching change during the offseason, adding a former Don Nehlen assistant, Dave McMichael, to coach tight ends and offensive special teams. He had been at Connecticut since 2001 when Nehlen left West Virginia.

    SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Many teams like to slide into the season and breeze through September, but that is not the case at West Virginia this year. After opening against Coastal Carolina, the Mountaineers must go on the road for a rivalry game against Marshall, which is now coached by Doc Holliday, a WVU graduate and former longtime assistant at the school. On Sept. 18, Maryland comes to Morgantown to renew a rivalry that took a few years off in a game that is always a battle. And then on Sept. 25, WVU hits the road to one of the toughest outposts in college football for a game of national importance against LSU.

    KEYS TO SUCCESS: With a strong, experienced defense returning and an All-American-quality running back in Noel Devine, the Mountaineers have a chance to put together a special season, if three things work out. To begin with, sophomore QB Geno Smith has to take control of the team. He has thrown only 49 passes in his career, but he must be able to take some of the heat off Devine and take advantage of WR Jock Sanders. To do this, the offensive line must be improved over last season, allowing him time to throw and allowing Devine to run against defenses that will be geared to stop him. The third key to a big season is to improve the special team play. The Mountaineers changed coaching assignments on special teams in an effort to cut down on the lack of kickoff coverage.

    AREAS OF CONCERN: A team that has had a succession of quarterbacks from Rasheed Marshall to Patrick White to Jarrett Brown finds itself breaking in a new man in sophomore Geno Smith. Not as fast as White or Marshall, nor as big as Brown, Smith is a solid thrower who will mostly be a pocket passer. To thicken the plot, two true freshmen -- Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson -- are the backups and are not expected to really be ready to play on the college level for a while. A year ago the offensive line was not very good, in part because it had no depth. That problem has been addressed, but there's still much that needs proven. Punter Scott Kozlowski is gone after averaged 44.7 yards per attempt last season. The team is hoping Corey Smith, an Alabama transfer, can take up where he left off.

    QUOTE TO NOTE: "We need that Pat White moment out of Geno (Smith) or whoever quarterbacks this team." -- Coach Bill Stewart, on what he's looking for from his quarterbacks this year.

    STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

    HEAD COACH: Bill Stewart, third year, 19-8.

    MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: RB Noel Devine -- West Virginia has never had a Heisman Trophy winner, but this could be the year. Devine has shaken off what was a quiet, shy demeanor to become a vocal team leader. A YouTube legend out of high school in Florida, Devine backed up Steve Slaton his first year then had a breakout game against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. Last year he rushed for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns. This year he will be running more out of a formation that includes blocking fullback Ryan Clarke, which should benefit him, and he will be used a lot as a pass receiver as the coaches try to get him out on the perimeter. It's almost certain that as he goes, the Mountaineers go.

    BREAKOUT STAR: WR Tavon Austin -- A star in waiting. To get him on the field, the Mountaineers are using him as a wide receiver, but Austin, who broke all the high school scoring and rushing records in Baltimore, is penciled in as Noel Devine's replacement at running back. Austin will also return kickoffs, where he showed great skill last year, including a 98-yard touchdown. As a true freshman Austin caught 15 passes for 151 yards and a touchdown, also rushing for a score on just six carries.

    NEWCOMER TO WATCH: CB Broderick Jenkins -- He redshirted last year while another freshman, Pat Miller, got some playing time. Jenkins moved past him this spring and is challenging Keith Tandy for a starting job. "It's his confidence that has grown," said cornerbacks coach David Lockwood. "When he first came here he was always in position to make the play but never made it. Then, this spring, he showed he could make the plays. Once he realized he could make the plays, his confidence grew and he improved."

    ROSTER REPORT

  • QB Geno Smith broke his left foot during a winter workout and was limited during spring and summer, although he was able to participate in passing drills and skeleton drills. He is completely healed.

  • DT Scooter Berry missed the bowl game last year with academic issues and then had offseason shoulder surgery that kept him out of spring practice. His shoulder is healed and his academic issues have been resolved.

  • WR Ryan Nehlen, grandson of former WVU coach Don Nehlen, missed the spring with a shoulder injury but is expected to be ready to fill a backup role this year.

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