West Virginia football preview: Three keys to the season


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1. QUARTERBACK BATTLE OR BLUFF?

When coach Dana Holgorsen released the first depth chart early Sunday night, he officially entered unfamiliar territory. Holgorsen is, for the first time, considering a two-quarterback rotation, listing juniors Paul Millard and Clint Trickett as co-starters.

Monday, Holgorsen said he felt comfortable letting the two continue to compete for the starting position. There's always the chance, however unlikely, that Holgorsen is simply playing his cards close to his chest to maintain a competitive advantage. With a blockbuster matchup with No. 16 Oklahoma looming Sept. 7, you would expect Holgorsen to get his starter as many snaps as possible this Saturday.

The quarterbacks bring slightly different flavors to the offense. Trickett, a transfer from Florida State, is seasoned and a natural leader but still is adjusting to the new playbook and up-tempo style. Millard, who has the most experience in the West Virginia system, "makes the best decisions and the worst decisions" of the two, Holgorsen said.

The battle -- if not already decided -- will come down to consistency and limiting mistakes. That process, it appears, will continue to unfold.

2. EXPERIENCE ON 'D': DIFFERENCE MAKER?

In the Big 12 Conference, there is no time for baby steps. The West Virginia defense will need to improve significantly in order for the Mountaineers to sniff the conference title hunt.

The defense was torched for 63, 55, 55 and 50 points in 2012 and allowed a league-worst 38.1 points per game.

The remedy, at least according to the coaching staff, could be experience. West Virginia's defense returns 15 players who had starting experience in 2012 and have sprinkled a number of transfers into the mix. As the Mountaineers move into their second year of defensive coordinator Keith Patterson's 3-4 defense, the unit should settle in and make strides with the fully implemented system.

The secondary will be leaned on to be the anchor after allowing 312.8 passing yards per game last season -- third-worst in the nation, ahead of only Baylor and Louisiana Tech. With sophomore free safety Karl Joseph returning after a standout freshman campaign alongside redshirt senior safety Darwin Cook, expect Big 12 offenses to think twice before taking to the air.

3. CAN A YEAR MAKE A DIFFERENCE?

Without quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, it is hard to imagine the Mountaineers could improve overall. On offense, they likely can't. Marked improvement on defense, though, quickly could vault West Virginia from its middling perch in the Big 12.

In their first Big 12 season, the Mountaineers beat themselves. They had an elite offense and a porous defense. On offense, only eight teams scored more points nationally than West Virginia (39.5 points per game). On defense, only eight teams allowed more points than the Mountaineers (38.1).

The Big 12 is a quarterback's dream: an air-raid, no-huddle, high-scoring conference. Even with Smith and West Virginia's top three receivers gone, the Mountaineers contend they'll be able to stay afloat in the conference, led by running back Charles Sims, strong quarterback play and breakout seasons from little-known receivers.

The lingering question is whether Patterson and the defense will have an answer for high-flying Big 12 offenses or if they'll be picked apart once again.

wvusports

First Published August 28, 2013 4:00 AM


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