West Virginia comes into spring practice with one hand tied behind its back.
The Mountaineers transitioned from Patrick White and his multi-talents at quarterback last year to Jarrett Brown, who was a senior. Now, they will go into an offense more to the liking of offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen and head coach Bill Stewart with a quarterback not quite so mobile, but they do so without the man they hope to inherit the quarterback role.
The truth is, they head to spring without Geno Smith, who filled in for Brown last year when he went out with a concussion and who is the heir apparent, and with their two top freshmen quarterbacks -- Barry Brunetti of Memphis and Jeremy Johnson of Silsbee, Texas -- not yet on campus.
The spring practice was moved as far back as possible, not starting until April 6 with the spring game on April 30, in hopes that Smith can get some reps before the end, as he needs the work badly. The broken foot he suffered, however, was a serious injury.
White's brother, Coley White, who is expected to play some wide receiver this year, is the only experienced quarterback and will run most of the drills.
The Mountaineers, other than at quarterback, are eager to get going. The team improved offensively last year even without White. With running back Noel Devine and slotback Jock Sanders having decided to come back this season rather than jump to the NFL, the offense is expected to be one of the most explosive in the Big East.
Devine rushed for 1,465 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and has rushed for 3,381 yards in three years, fifth best in school history. Sanders led the team in receiving with 72 catches for 688 yards.
Working fullback Ryan Clarke in full time as a blocker and inside runner will be a big part of the spring package.
The starting offensive line, which played almost every snap last year, loses only tackle Selvish Capers, and the key will be finding depth from a number of redshirts who did not play last year because they weren't ready.
The defense is strong and veteran, with the only real challenge being in finding a replacement at middle linebacker for Reed Williams, but both his backups, Najee Goode and Anthony Leonard, who got good experience last year, are back.
While the Mountaineers have a solid placekicker back in Tyler Bitancurt, they must replace punter Scott Kozlowski. Alabama transfer Corey Smith will try to win the job.NOTES, QUOTES
SPRING OBJECTIVES: The offense is under the microscope this spring, although all judgments are going to have to be withheld, for projected starting QB Geno Smith is hobbled with a broken bone in his foot, the result of a workout injury.
That means the key offensive effort on the spring will be to improve an overworked and underachieving offensive line. The Mountaineers had no depth last year and failed to live up to what were high expectations.
The look this year will be different because it's expected WVU will make more use out of fullback Ryan Clarke, who proved himself to be a devastating blocker and solid runner who can take some heat off Noel Devine. Experimenting with the way they will use Clarke will be part of the spring package.
Defensively, the Mountaineers will have a battle at middle linebacker to replace Reed Williams, and cornerback Tandy Smith figures to have a fight on his hands to hold his spot over Pat Miller and Broderick Jenkins.
Much emphasis will go onto special teams, where coverage was among the worst in the nation last year. Head coach Bill Stewart had handled that but is turning it over to assistants this year.
BUILDING BLOCKS: Whether he likes it or not, this is Noel Devine's offense. Now a senior and on the verge of All-American status, Devine returned to try and lead this team to a national championship, something that will be hard to do with a sophomore at quarterback.
But he and SB Jock Sanders will have possession of the offense and must make it explosive.
The defense is experienced but loses its leader in Reed Williams, the middle linebacker. S Robert Sands, a player who simply exploded on the Big East scene last year, is the most dynamic player, but the strength may come from a defensive line anchored by senior NG Chris Neild. Scooter Berry, who may be slowed with an injury this spring and is coming off a suspension, is also a dynamic player expecting a huge senior season.
The truth is the defense, which also gets huge plays out of LB J.T. Thomas and S Sidney Glover, could be one of college football's elites this season.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I don't care if you have 12-0 talent. If you have 6-6 leadership, that is what your team is probably going to be -- 6-6. This entire operation of 2010 is going to be based on some very simple facts. Do we have the right chemistry? Do we have the right leadership? Do we have the right role models doing what they are supposed to do? That is what we are going to find out." -- Coach Bill Stewart on his emphasis this spring.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: With a change coming at athletic director, Bill Stewart faces a crucial year as head coach. He was not a popular choice with some influential alumni when he was picked to replace Rich Rodriguez and two 9-4 seasons have not matched the 11 wins Rodriguez had in each of his final two seasons as coach. Getting to a BCS bowl with an experienced team seems almost necessary if Stewart is to stay on the job under a new administration.
QB Barry Brunetti -- One of the top rated dual-threat quarterbacks to come out of high school this year and a Parade All-American, Brunetti will get a chance to battle for playing time. He actually may not be at a huge disadvantage, as expected starter Geno Smith will be limited this spring with an injury. Brunetti ho finished his prep career at Memphis University School with 3,882 yards passing yards and 43 touchdowns passes while also rushing for 1,660 yards and 39 touchdowns. He has not lost a football game since seventh grade.
OL Quinton Spain -- West Virginia is looking for help on the offensive line and the 6-6, 330-pound Spain can be a big contributor in more ways than one. An offensive guard from Petersburg High in Virginia, he could provide depth even as a freshman to an offensive line that had no depth last year. "I saw him play basketball and he scored 30, was acrobatic and had a soft jump shot," coach Bill Stewart said.
WR Ivan McCartney -- He should move along faster than many recruits because he was a high school teammate in Miramar, Fla., of starting quarterback Geno Smith. He was in the Sporting News Top 35 after finishing with 37 catches for 747 yards and 10 touchdowns as a senior while returning 16 punts for 625 yards. He's expected to offer much of the same kind of stuff that Tavon Austin brings to the table.
--QB Geno Smith, who needs spring practice in the worst way, suffered a broken foot while working out early in the off-season. Surgery was performed to insert a screw.
--DT Scooter Berry was ineligible academically for the Gator Bowl against Florida State, which may have been a blessing as he had been bothered by a bad shoulder. He is expected to sit out spring practice letting it heal.
--WR Ryan Nehlen, grandson of former coach Don Nehlen, underwent off-season knee surgery. It's hoped he will be ready for the spring.
--WVU may experiment with using cornerback Brandon Hogan, a former quarterback, some on offense as a receiver.
--The one addition to the coaching staff was veteran assistant Dave McMichael, who coached for years under Don Nehlen. He came back from Connecticut to replace Doc Holliday, who left to be head coach at Marshall. McMichael will handle the tight ends and some special teams.
Previous Report: 03/25/2010