MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s three-month football hiatus will end Sunday afternoon when the Mountaineers take the field for the first of 14 spring practices leading up to the April 12 Gold-Blue Spring Game.
After West Virginia’s disappointing 4-8 season, athletic director Oliver Luck reaffirmed his trust in coach Dana Holgorsen but said he had “high expectations” for the 2014 season, which opens Aug. 30 against Alabama in Atlanta.
“We had plenty of challenges this season,” Luck said. “Nonetheless, we should not and will not use those excuses for our performance. We simply must get better.”
1. Will Holgorsen’s transparency pay off?
Holgorsen, unlike his predecessors, Bill Stewart and Rich Rodriguez, is not a son of the small but proud state of West Virginia. At first, he didn’t need to be. This Davenport, Iowa, native came to Morgantown heralded as an offensive genius and went 10-3 in his first season. Since then, his teams went 7-6 and 4-8. In 2013, West Virginia missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2001. In the offseason, Holgorsen decided to take his team around the state in spring camp, scheduling open practices in Wheeling, Morgantown and Charleston. Will the move win back some favor from the disgruntled fan base? In his decisive fourth year, Holgorsen can only hope so.
2. Who will hold down the front?
West Virginia’s biggest on-field question this spring will be who plugs the holes on the offensive line left by departing senior starters Curtis Feigt, Pat Eger and Nick Kindler. Holgorsen already claims to have “one of the better guard combinations in the country” in seniors Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski, and redshirt sophomore center Tyler Orlosky is expected to start and shore up the interior line. But the prospects at tackle are raw and unproven. And “unproven” is a scary thought for an offensive line that allowed 28 sacks in 2013.
3. Can the kids replace D-line vets?
The Mountaineers will be without multiyear starters Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell, who are chasing NFL careers. When you only use a three-man front, replacing two of those starters appears to be a daunting task. Even with those veterans, West Virginia struggled to produce a pass rush. Redshirt sophomore nose tackle Christian Brown, a 6-foot-3, 308-pound behemoth, has gotten rave reviews in the offseason after missing the second half of 2013 with an injury. Whether he can eat double- and triple-teams in the heart of the Big 12 Conference season is another matter, but spring practices should offer a good indication.
4. All eyes on the arms race
After the quarterback carousel in 2013 that led to Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress each starting multiple games, Mountaineers fans would like nothing more than to have Holgorsen crown a starter in spring camp. But that’s just not going to happen. Trickett, the likely frontrunner, had shoulder surgery to repair a torn labrum in January and will miss spring practice. Junior-college transfer Skyler Howard could gain ground quickly with a good showing in a spring battle against Millard, the incumbent backup. Holgorsen won’t name a starter while Trickett is out, nor does he need to, but he must see vast improvement from those available this spring.
5. Which horse will WVU ride?
For the second season in a row, West Virginia is blessed with a stable of capable running backs. Charles Sims took the bulk of the carries in 2013 and accrued 1,095 rushing yards and 11 TDs, becoming the first Mountaineers tailback to surpass the 1,000-yard mark since Noel Devine in 2009. Senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Wendell Smallwood looked good as backups, and now they are joined by Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, a redshirt sophomore, and redshirt junior Andrew Buie, who left the university before the 2013 season after falling to fourth on the depth chart but returned in January. Not only is West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider curious to see how the group jells, he would like to see some separation in the race for the starting job this spring.