The most pressing questions for West Virginia are on defense

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One little sentence Dana Holgorsen uttered last week in Dallas might sum up the expectations for West Virginia football this fall: "Everything is better the second year."

He was referring to his offense.

But, if the same can describe the entire operation -- defense, special teams, game management -- perhaps the hype surrounding this program will be warranted as it dives headfirst into the Big 12.

It all starts to take shape today when the Mountaineers open preseason camp at Milan Puskar Stadium.

There are several well-documented known's: The Mountaineers have an explosive offense led by quarterback Geno Smith and his top receivers, a respectable if not overpowering running game, and an unusually deep offensive line.

But there also are plenty of questions: Will the defense adapt to a new scheme under new leadership?

How will the pass rush come along? The secondary?

Can the freshman class provide some immediate depth?

And will it all come together in a power conference loaded with talent?

Here are five things to watch during preseason.

1 The freshman class

Five freshmen have been on campus since enrolling in January -- defensive tackle Imarjaye Albury, safety Karl Joseph, receiver Jordan Thompson, safety Sean Walters and quarterback Ford Childress. About 20 more arrived this week.

Holgorsen has spoken at length about the need for depth in the Big 12, and this class was designed to include players who can help immediately as role players.

Exactly how many recruits will be academically eligible, on campus and ready to go is at question, but several likely will make their way into the lineup in September.

"I'm pretty excited to see some of these new guys come in and see what they can do," said Holgorsen. "Everybody loses guys, and each year you line up and you get in camp and you practice and you figure out who those guys are and you lean on them."

2 The running backs

There are few questions on offense which, as Holgorsen noted last week, returns 20 players including Smith and his top receiving tandem of Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin.

The exception is at running back. At question is the health of sophomore Dustin Garrison who had major knee surgery in the offseason.

He took the ball -- literally -- and ran with it as a freshman last year.

"They say he's doing great, but there's a mental aspect that you've got to overcome as far as getting out there and cutting and getting hit that we're going to see," said Holgorsen.

"But I can only go from what [our trainers] are saying. They're saying he's doing well and he's ready to go, so I assume he's ready to go."

He will compete with classmate Andrew Buie and senior Shawne Alston, a short-yardage specialist who has slimmed down, according to Holgorsen.

3 The defense

The defense is led by new coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson and will grapple with the loss of several key players: defensive end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode, and cornerback Keith Tandy -- all NFL draft picks.

It's unclear who will emerge as the team's top pass-rusher with the loss of Irvin. It's equally cloudy in the secondary, which must contain the pass-heavy offenses of the Big 12.

"You're going to score points. You're going to give up big plays. It doesn't mean that the game's over," said Holgorsen. "You just got to keep playing defensively. I think we've got some guys in place that understand that."

4 The offensive line

This unit lost two starters but returns guard Josh Jenkins who sat out last year with an injury.

Led by center Joe Madsen, guard Jeff Braun, and tackles Quinton Spain and Pat Eger, this group has 100 starts among them. Preseason camp certainly will include a hunt for highly capable backups.

5 Geno Smith

Yes, Geno Smith. He's the leader of this team, its best player, and the guy it could all come down to as the Mountaineers move into a league well-known for talented quarterbacks.

"He progressed and he's got a chance to be pretty good," said Holgorsen. "He stacks up with a lot of the other guys I've had in the past. Ultimately, it's how many games you win. He's going to be remembered for how many games you win."

Smith, named the Big 12 preseason player of the year, put on 20 pounds to bulk up to 225 and said the accolades mean nothing to him.

"The only thing I've learned is none of those preseason media things mean anything," said Smith. "The only thing we can control is what we do on the field."


Jenn Menendez:, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez.


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