For West Virginia, this day couldn’t come soon enough.
The Mountaineers have been itching to hit the reset button since they closed a 4-8 season eight months ago and missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2001.
And now, in coach Dana Holgorsen’s decisive fourth season, comes the fiercest test yet. West Virginia will open the season against perennial heavyweight Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game Aug. 30 at Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
But first comes three weeks of fall camp, time to wipe the slate clean, bring the freshmen up to speed and get position battles underway. As practices begin in Morgantown, W.Va., we ask these five questions of the Mountaineers …
1. How much progress is enough?
In December, a few days after the Mountaineers closed their season with a triple-overtime loss against Iowa State, West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck released a statement backing Holgorsen’s coaching staff but admitted “there were far too many disappointments” in the 4-8 season. This is a crucial season for Holgorsen, whose Mountaineers are 21-17 since his arrival but just 6-12 in Big 12 Conference play. And while another season without a bowl game might justifiably land Holgorsen on the chopping block, how much improvement can realistically be expected? West Virginia has one of the most difficult schedules in college football this fall, starting with a non-conference slate that includes the aforementioned Crimson Tide and border-state rival Maryland, which romped the Mountaineers, 37-0, in September 2013. West Virginia might be a better team this fall but it’s possible for it to still come away with a similar, sorry record.
2. Does Trickett hold the golden ticket?
This year, Holgorsen wasted no time with a quarterback competition. Holgorsen named redshirt senior Clint Trickett the starter in June, despite Trickett missing spring camp because of offseason shoulder surgery. Trickett arrived in Morgantown in August 2013 after transferring from Florida State and finally, aided by Paul Millard’s uninspired play and Ford Childress’s chest injury, got his start in Week 5. Trickett led West Virginia to a 30-21 upset victory against No. 11 Oklahoma State and kept the starting job throughout the season, though he was visibly hampered by a torn labrum. Trickett, son of Florida State offensive line coach Rick Trickett, finished with 1,605 passing yards, seven touchdowns and seven interceptions — not gaudy numbers by any stretch, but enough to earn him Holgorsen’s vote of confidence as the duel with the Crimson Tide draws closer.
3. New coordinator, new results?
When defensive coordinator Keith Patterson left for Arizona State in February, Holgorsen tapped Tony Gibson as West Virginia’s fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons. Gibson, a Van, W.Va., native, made coaching stops at Michigan, Arizona and Pitt before returning to West Virginia as safeties coach in 2013. The Mountaineers defense allowed 33.3 points per game last season and has surrendered an average of 32.7 points per game since Holgorsen’s staff took over in 2011. Gibson, a defensive back by trade, will have plenty of talent to work with in the secondary, as well as a skilled and experienced linebacker corps. But success hinges on whether the defensive line, which lost starters Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell to the NFL, will be able to create backfield pressure with a thin three-man front.
4. Who heads the tailback race?
West Virginia’s loaded backfield took a hit earlier this month when sophomore Wendell Smallwood was extradited to his home state of Delaware on charges of intimidating a witness in a murder investigation. Smallwood sat second on the depth chart after spring camp, having rushed for 221 yards and a touchdown as a freshman. Holgorsen declined to comment on Smallwood’s status at Big 12 media days last week. Still, the Mountaineers are left with plenty of other options to replace Charles Sims’ production (1,095 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in 2013). Senior Dreamius Smith returns after a 494-yard season with five touchdowns. Rushel Shell, a transfer from Pitt, is back on the field after a redshirt season and figures to factor into the starting discussion. He ran for 641 yards and four scores as a freshman in 2012. Andrew Buie is back, too; he sat out the 2013 season after being bumped down the depth chart by Sims.
5. What role will Bradley play?
West Virginia turned heads across the Rust Belt this spring when it brought Tom Bradley aboard as senior associate head coach. Bradley spent 33 years as an assistant coach on Joe Paterno’s staff at Penn State, including more than 10 years as defensive coordinator. Bradley’s duties have not been explicitly defined to those outside the walls of Milan Puskar Center, but he is expected to work with the defensive line and mentor Gibson in his first year as defensive coordinator. Some see Bradley as a potential coach-in-waiting, but neither Luck nor Bradley have indicated that to be the case. Regardless, Bradley is a veteran voice on game day, perhaps someone to temper Holgorsen’s sideline antics, and is a valuable asset for West Virginia on the recruiting trail.
Stephen J. Nesbitt: email@example.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.