Much like its rival Pittsburgh, West Virginia will hardly be recognizable to its fans when it breaks the huddle on offense in 2011. Gone are the days of Jeff Mullen and the stagnant offense that so often drove West Virginia fans crazy and often squandered stellar defensive efforts. With the addition of offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers will finally have some offensive firepower to support what has been a consistently smothering defense under coordinator Jeff Casteel. Here's our impressions of the Mountaineers following spring practice.
Team Strength: It might be a bit lazy to go with quarterback, but we couldn't be more impressed with the job that Geno Smith did in the spring of picking up the Holgorsen offense. There was never any doubting Smith's physical tools, only the decision making and the offensive system that didn't always look well suited for his strengths. In Holgorsen's very wide open offense, Smith will flourish. He threw the ball with ease to an array of different receivers in the Mountaineers' spring game and it's hard to envision what opposing defenses will do with him this fall. He's as physically gifted as any of the other quarterbacks that Holgorsen has had success with in his previous stops at Houston and Oklahoma State, so the expectations are going to be pretty. Luckily for Geno Smith, it appears that he will have no problem meeting them. For the first time perhaps since the last season of Pat White's great career in Morgantown, the Mountaineers should field a very potent offense with a star quarterback at the helm.
A close second for team strength is at wide receiver. Bringing back Tavon Austin and Bradley Starks and putting them into an offense that has made household names out of receivers at Texas Tech, Houston, and Oklahoma State, only bodes well for the future of this offense. That receiving corps will be a challenge for any defense in 2011.
Team Weakness: While quarterback and receiver look to be stocked with plenty of playmakers, for the first time in years, there are legitimate questions about who will carry the ball on offense. Noel Devine has moved on to the NFL and none of the returning backs really blew observers away. Holgorsen's willingness to run the ball is sometimes missed in all of the emphasis that his wide open passing game gets, but, his offenses are always at their best with a running back like Kendall Hunter last season that can provide balance and force defenses to stay honest. Right now, there's no Kendall Hunter in the Mountaineers' offensive backfield and that will be a sore spot on the depth chart until someone steps up. The lack of a feature back could open up a chance for a stellar freshman to get early carries...
Emerging: Hard to disagree with ESPN's Brian Bennett who named tight end/slot receiver Tyler Urban as one of the biggest developments of the spring for West Virginia. At 6'5, 250 pounds, Urban is an imposing figure and in Holgorsen's offense functions as a slot receiver. He's a physical mismatch against safeties and corners in nickel packages and seemed to be immediately comfortable with his new position. He'll make a nice security blanket for Geno Smith in the fall.
Opportunities for Impact Freshmen: Big East Coast Bias loves freshman running back Andrew Buie out of Jacksonville, FL. Buie was hotly pursued by both Louisville and West Virginia and came down to a signing day decision that the Mountaineers won. Buie is a dynamic, breakaway runner that should be able to step right in and get meaningful carries for the Mountaineers. If he does, he might not relinquish the running back job for a very long time. Watch out.
Injuries: The Mountaineers came out of spring practice without too many serious injuries. The one of concern is guard Josh Jenkins who injured his knee midway through spring practice and might not be fully healthy by the time fall camp comes around.
Post-Spring Expectations: West Virginia is the only Big East team consistently considered a top 25 possibility heading into 2011. That being the case, expectations should be for a Big East championship or bust. The defense has stellar defenders at each level (though some pieces need replacing at corner and at defensive tackle) and will finally have an offense to support it. The non-conference schedule features bowl teams Maryland and LSU. In conference play, West Virginia gets Louisville, UConn, and Pitt at home but finishes the season at South Florida on just six days rest. Even so, a consistent defense and much improved offense make the Mountaineers are the odds on favorite to win the Big East in 2011.