Biggest Surprise (Positive)
Tony Dobies: IR Devon Brown
The Wake Forest transfer at inside receiver has done what some had hoped he would do when he decided to come to Morgantown. Brown has truly been a pleasant surprise, as head coach Dana Holgorsen admitted during fall camp.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Brown is one of the Mountaineers’ most consistent players in 2011 and eventually earns a starting spot over fellow senior Tyler Urban. Brown really does fit this offense well.
Patrick Southern: RBs Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison
Sure, there was hype around these two true freshmen all offseason. Coaches made no bones about the fact they would compete for the starting job as soon as they arrived on campus.
But you hear those things about talented youngsters often. Rarely do they live up to the billing. From all accounts, both Buie and Garrison had solid fall camps.
It seems likely a true freshman will trot out onto the field at running back for the first play of the season-opener -- the first time that has happened at WVU that any media member that covers the Mountaineers could recall during a conversation we had on the subject a couple of weeks ago.
Biggest Surprise (Negative)
TD: RT Quinton Spain
There was a lot of hope during spring ball, summer workouts and fall camp that WVU would find its new right tackle in the nearly 350-pound Spain.
It doesn’t look like that’s going to pan out this season, as Holgorsen has said that fellow offensive lineman Pat Eger has jumped ahead of Spain on the depth chart. Still, it’s unfulfilled potential for a player like Spain – though he could contribute on the line, just not as a starter, in 2011.
PS: WR Brad Starks
Starks is an athletic senior who stood to benefit as much as anyone from Holgorsen’s arrival and the new scheme he brought with him. But a shoulder injury derailed his spring -- and even before that, Holgorsen was questioning Starks’ toughness.
I expected Starks to come into fall camp like a man possessed as a result -- determined to prove to his head coach that he belongs. For whatever reason, that hasn’t happened. At last report, Starks was still stuck on a stationary bike, pedaling towards a potential future in the Tour de France, according to Holgorsen.
At this rate, he might see the Alps and the Pyrenees on the saddle of a bike before he sees meaningful game action for West Virginia. Of course, there’s still time for that to change.
Team’s Greatest Strength
Holgorsen hadn’t been as happy with the receivers prior to the second week of fall camp. But it seems like his thoughts on that unit started to change as it became more consistent.
To me, there’s a stunning amount of playmakers at this position starting with inside receiver Tavon Austin and wide receiver Stedman Bailey. Behind those guys are underrated players like Ryan Nehlen, Ivan McCartney, Tyler Urban and Brown, among others.
PS: Defensive line
Position coach Bill Kirelawich might not have agreed with me a couple of weeks ago, when he characterized the level of play among his unit thusly: “stink.”
But he has proven stars in Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller. Jorge Wright is on his way to being a capable replacement for departed nose tackle Chris Neild. And there is a a bit of experienced depth in Will Clarke (who almost certainly will play situationally) and Josh Taylor.
Team’s Greatest Weakness
TD: Offensive line
There will be some progression by this unit from 2010 to 2011, but it will still be the team’s greatest weakness if only because of the special teams unit has become a bit more consistent throughout fall camp, according to Holgorsen.
I have no issues with left tackle Don Barclay and center Joe Madsen – in fact those guys might be all-Big East players – but the rest of the line is worrisome.
PS: Overall depth
There just isn’t much of it to be had at just about any position. If Geno Smith was to get hurt, true freshman Paul Millard is the only other scholarship option at the quarterback spot. Offensive line injuries could be catastrophic.
Other positions have more talent further down the depth chart, but it is unproven. This is particularly true at linebacker, receiver and safety.
For WVU to be successful, it will need to avoid the injury bug in a major way.
Best Position Battle
TD: Running backs
This is fairly obvious if you’re listening to what Holgorsen has said over the last two or three weeks. It’s a position that might not even be won until after the Mountaineers play Marshall.
From what I’ve heard and seen, it looks like freshman Andrew Buie has the advantage at this point, but fellow freshmen Dustin Garrison and Vernard Roberts also have looked good. Throw in sophomore Trey Johnson, as well, and this one should be fun.
PS: Wide (Z) Receiver
This is the one Holgorsen has said is particularly fun to watch, and it’s one that will be compelling to pay attention to on Sept. 4.
Most assumed Ivan McCartney would rise to prominence under Holgorsen. Instead, he was still listed as the back-up at this position on the depth chart WVU released before fall camp. Ryan Nehlen -- a player Holgorsen genuinely likes -- could actually win the starting job.
Both will certainly play, but it will be interesting to see how evenly the snaps are divided when the games actually begin.
Under The Radar Player Most Likely To Contribute
TD: S Darwin Cook
Though he was injured through a part of fall camp, Cook has the opportunity to really step in at safety and make a huge impact for the WVU defense in 2011.
Known as a hard hitter and a tough player, that’s something that the Mountaineers will need without Robert Sands. If it’s not Cook, I bet linebacker Doug Rigg is another player to keep an eye on.
PS: IR Devon Brown
There’s been a bit of discussion about Brown just because of his newness -- the Wake Forest transfer only has one season to play in Morgantown. But because media members didn’t get to watch much of practice, there’s no indication as to what he has looked like in the gold and blue.
Still, I suspect he will make an impact this season. Brown and Tyler Urban are going to situationally split reps at the Y receiver position, and I expect Brown to make plays there. But don’t count out Brown on special teams either. He could play a prominent role in WVU’s kick and punt return games.
Often-Discussed Player Most Likely To Play A Minimal Role
TD: WR Brad Starks
This is a disappointing response, because I had hoped Starks would get it back together after an injury in the spring. But, he hasn’t.
Prior to that injury in the spring, Starks looked like the best receiver on the team and probably the best leader at the position, as well. That has obviously changed, and it seems Starks won’t be making an early season impact -- if any impact at all.
PS: RB Shawne Alston
Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to call Alston “often-discussed” but he left almost all observers impressed when called into action during the 2010 season.
He may get left in the lurch this time around, though. A bevy of talented “A” backs (the faster guys like Buie, Garrison and Vernard Roberts) and a series of big, strong “B” backs (Ryan Clarke, Matt Lindamood and Ricky Kovatch) have all done well this fall, according to Holgorsen and Robert Gillespie.
Alston’s body type and running style is somewhere between the As and the Bs. And that probably doesn’t bode well for the junior from Hampton, Va.
Question You Want To See Answered
TD: How well will the offensive and defensive staffs work together during a game?
This answer might not necessarily come until the team is down for the first time, but I am intrigued to see what happens when there’s a little suspense and surprise in a game.
The offensive and defensive coaching staffs haven’t been together for a game yet, and to me that’s something of interest to see how their relationships develop.
PS: What kind of a game manager will Holgorsen be as head coach?
We have a decent grasp of what the WVU head coach’s offense looks like after seeing it installed over the course of the spring. But Holgorsen has never been a head coach. He’s never been the one to call the timeouts, to decide whether to go for it on fourth down or punt, to manage the clock with a slim lead late in a game.
Unless West Virginia ends up in an unexpected dogfight over the course of the first three weeks of the season, it might be a while before any of those decisions actually matter. But when they do, it will be interesting to watch how Holgorsen approaches things, and if he differs from “conventional” wisdom in any area.
Best Offensive Player
TD: IR Tavon Austin
I originally put quarterback Geno Smith as my answer, but I changed it. There’s not a player with better pro potential than Smith, but Austin – in terms of talent and experience – has to get my nod as the best offensive player.
With a few extra pounds, I expect Austin to be even better in 2011 and surprise the country with his ability to find open space and do some unbelievable things with it.
PS: WR Stedman Bailey
He’s not quite as explosive of an athlete as Tavon Austin, and he’s not a dark horse Heisman Trophy pick like Geno Smith. But Bailey might be the player who becomes a household name nationally this season in Holgorsen’s offense.
It’s a shame his name is “Stedman” because it makes every reference to his steady play seem like a corny joke. But trust me, this is not. Bailey might be WVU’s most consistent route-runner. He is sure-handed. He has a rapport with Smith that dates back to their high school days.
Big things could be ahead for Bailey in 2011.
Best Defensive Player
TD: LB Najee Goode
Prior to the 2010 season, there wasn’t a chance that I would’ve thought Goode would be my answer to this question. He’s proven a lot since that point, though.
Last year, when Pat Lazear went down with an injury, Goode had to step in as a starter before he was probably ready. That experience has turned him into one of the Big East’s best linebackers and a great, experienced leader.
PS: S Terence Garvin
Garvin is a quiet guy -- so much so that it’s often hard to hear his answers during interviews with the media. He’s also a somewhat quiet player on the field -- he led WVU in tackles in 2010 with 76 (41 unassisted, 35 assisted), but most probably wouldn’t know that off-hand.
He may be quiet, but he’s every bit as assignment-sound as any other player on the Mountaineer defense. He’s a steadying force at the back end of things, not prone to make the sort of mistakes that lead to touchdowns for the opposition. And in a secondary that lost stars like Brandon Hogan and Robert Sands, his solid play will be of even greater importance for West Virginia.
Most Likely to Earn All-American Honors
TD: DE Bruce Irvin
To be considered an all-American at the end of the year, you usually have your name thrown out there at the start of the season unless you play an offensive skill position.
Irvin is considered to be a top 5 defensive end by most experts, and I would tend to agree. If he has a similar year statistically as he did in 2010, I’d expect him to be in the all-American discussion. Don’t count out Smith, though.
PS: QB Geno Smith
No one stands to benefit more from Dana Holgorsen’s arrival in Morgantown than his quarterback. Smith threw for 2,763 yards in 2010 -- the second-best total in school history -- while playing in an offense that was inept enough to cause a coaching change.
With Holgorsen’s scheme in place, Marc Bulger’s WVU record of 3,607 passing yards in a season (1998) should be in serious jeopardy. And if Smith eclipses that mark, it’s hard to imagine he won’t crack an All-American team somewhere. He even has an outside chance to wind up as a Heisman Trophy finalist.
Most Consistent Player
TD: S Terence Garvin
I could’ve picked a player like cornerback Keith Tandy or Nehlen, guys who Holgorsen has mentioned at times during the fall.
But, I went a little off the radar with Garvin, who is as steady as they get at safety. Garvin had a team-leading 76 tackles a year ago on a defense that was filled with talent and experience. Now, he will be one of the most experienced players, and the sky’s the limit.
PS: DE Bruce Irvin
Even on days when the offensive line played relatively well in camp, drawing praise from Holgorsen, the head coach had to quickly follow those words up with a caveat: “That Bruce Irvin is pretty good.”
While reporters didn’t get to watch live drills during preseason camp, indications from players and coaches alike were that Irvin could have pitched a tent in the Mountaineers’ backfield, he was there so frequently.
The defensive end himself said he feels faster this season. If so, watch out. Life could get even tougher for opposing quarterbacks.
TD: CB Keith Tandy
I was surprised prior to last season that so many players put so much trust in Tandy and what he said and knew. It made sense after a stunning and surprising junior year.
Now, as a senior, even more players listen to Tandy – and I don’t blame them. He gets his point across and does a solid job of motivating the entire team. He has a bit more focused energy than a player like Irvin.
PS: DE Bruce Irvin
He’s only been in Morgantown for a little over a year, but the star defensive end is as much a Mountaineer as anyone on the roster. He might be the team’s most competitive person. No one seemed as upset after the Champs Sports Bowl loss to North Carolina State last season as Irvin.
By all accounts, he’s a leader in the weight room. He is quick to correct other players’ mistakes -- and does so vocally. He often asks questions of Kirelawich during practices. Already athletic, he’s attempting to become a thinking man’s defensive lineman.
Irvin leads both by example and vocally. And leading up to a season that is so much about offense, he might be the poster boy for what West Virginia football is all about in 2011.
Most Improved Player Since Last Season
TD: WR Ryan Nehlen
I’m not sure if Nehlen has been this good and consistent in past years, but he surely didn’t get an opportunity to prove it.
Now, he has. And he’s proven that he can be a solid option as a possession receiver for the Mountaineers. He jumps higher than any other WVU player, and he’s as trusted as they come. I thought he might be one of those players to shine in the spring and lose momentum. That hasn’t happened.
PS: C Joey Madsen
Madsen went from fighting just to stay academically eligible to a player Holgorsen called perhaps the best center he has been around at any of his coaching stops.
The junior from Chardon, Ohio has had that sort of potential since arriving at WVU. For whatever reason, the new offense (and the way the line handles its responsibilities under position coach Bill Bedenbaugh) has apparently clicked for Madsen.
He and left tackle Don Barclay will be the two anchors of a line that must play well for the Mountaineers to enjoy the sort of offensive success fans are expecting and hoping for.
Team Most Likely to Defeat WVU (outside of LSU)
TD: South Florida
Pittsburgh and South Florida have similar talent to West Virginia, so both games will be tough for the Mountaineers. However, WVU takes on USF in Tampa, which will make that game harder if only for playing in a different place.
Bulls’ head coach Skip Holtz has more experience than most coaches against the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 defense and has beaten WVU in the past. USF has always – and will continue to be – the Mountaineers’ biggest thorn.
PS: South Florida
West Virginia’s biggest Big East nemesis in recent years could again play the role of spoiler. Skip Holtz has years of experience against Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack defense, and he may be the coach most capable of finding ways to attack that young and rebuilt unit.
The Mountaineers haven’t played well at Raymond James Stadium, going 1-2 at the home the Bulls borrow from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Even WVU’s 2005-06 Sugar Bowl champion team had to eke out a 28-13 win there.
This one could well decide the Big East Conference champion.
Despite issues at offensive line and on special teams, West Virginia will go 10-2 in 2011 and win the Big East Conference. The Mountaineers will have one of the best passing attacks in the country led by Smith. And, if a running back emerges as a playmaker, the offense will finish in the top 5 in overall and scoring statistics.
On defense, WVU won't be as strong as in 2010. However, it might not show. The Mountaineers' offense will outscore most opponents and allow a defensive line filled with speed to scare opposing quarterbacks. Holgorsen will lead WVU back to the BCS in 2011 - if only for a terribly average Big East.
Enter Dana Holgorsen, with a career’s worth of gaudy offensive numbers to his credit. Given what WVU’s defense accomplished last year (and the fact it retained all of those assistant coaches to work with the new offensive staff), many optimistic Mountaineer backers have gone wild with pie-in-the-sky dreams: an undefeated season, College GameDay in Morgantown, Geno Smith or Bruce Irvin (or both) in New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, and a shot at a national championship.
These are heady times at West Virginia. But there are reasons for concern amidst all the optimism: an offensive line that needs to improve markedly, a lack of receiver depth, perilously thin quarterback depth, tons of new starters on defense and a kicking game shakier than the ground in the eastern United States was on Tuesday. The offense will be better, but not as good as it would need to be to secure a 12-0 campaign.