West Virginia spring game offers intriguing first looks

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Time heals all wounds, and spring football helps a bit, too.

When West Virginia last took the field at Milan Puskar Stadium, the Mountaineers were served a 52-44 triple-overtime defeat against lowly Iowa State. West Virginia finished the 2013 season 4-8 and missed a bowl game for the first time since 2001.

The re-energized squad returns to Mountaineer Field today for the Gold-Blue Spring Game, the last of its allotted 15 practice sessions before breaking spring camp.

Coach Dana Holgorsen approached his fourth spring in Morgantown rather differently than his first three. He bused the team around the state and held open Saturday practices in Wheeling, Charleston and at Milan Puskar Stadium.

"I think the majority of our guys understand what this means to the people of the state of West Virginia and how much excitement there is surrounding what they've done," Holgorsen said last week. "We've made that very well-known, and we're working hard to rectify a 4-8 season, that's for sure."

West Virginia struggled with inconsistent quarterback play last fall, and answers are unlikely to arise this afternoon, as senior quarterback Clint Trickett, the likely frontrunner, is sidelined with a torn labrum.

Fans will get their first real look at sophomore quarterback Skyler Howard, an offseason transfer from Riverside Community College in California. Holgorsen said there has been an adjustment period for Howard, like for most junior-college transfers.

"I'll feel better about where Skyler is probably around Sept. 1," Holgorsen said. "It just takes time."

Senior quarterback Paul Millard, who started the first two games last season, remains a steady yet unspectacular option in the backfield. Millard has the best grasp of Holgorsen's up-tempo, air-raid offense.

"I don't even have to look at Paul Millard," Holgorsen said. "I can just shoot him a look or a signal and he knows because he's done it for four years."

The spring game also will be the unofficial debut for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, who became West Virginia's fourth defensive coordinator in as many seasons after Keith Patterson left for Arizona State in February.

"I couldn't be happier with how coach Gibson has taken the reins," Holgorsen said.

Among the spring standouts, according to Holgorsen, was junior safety K.J. Dillon, a linchpin in a new, more aggressive defensive approach. Dillon will line up as a hybrid safety/linebacker in Gibson's 3-3-5 defensive scheme.

"He has been very disruptive on defense and more disciplined," Holgorsen said of Dillon. "He's always been disruptive on defense, but sometimes it was more disruptive for himself or me than he has opposing offenses."

Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com, 412-290-2183 and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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