MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Some 71 days after West Virginia was seared by Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, spring football practice begins Sunday with the two-deep roster in a free-for-all and several new members of the coaching staff requiring some orientation as well.
This may not sound like the preferred recipe for a top 25 team heading into the 2013 season, but as that snowy night in the Bronx revealed, the star-laden 2012 team didn’t measure up to WVU’s standards. So fresh faces, and a more disciplined climate surrounding the program, could help the Mountaineers exceed rebuilding-year expectations.
Here’s a Q&A as WVU takes to the field today for the first of 15 spring workouts:
Will a quarterback win the job during spring practice?
Dana Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson sound intent upon pushing the competition into August, giving coaches the maximum time to evaluate not only the skill sets but also the leadership qualities of junior Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress.
Barring a serious injury to one of Texas-born quarterbacks, the Mountaineers should exit the April 20 spring game with the race ongoing.
“It breeds more competition in the summer,” Dawson said. “The moment you make a decision, the competition is over.”
Millard is 16-of-34 passing during two seasons of mop-up duty behind Geno Smith, but by no means is he the automatic heir apparent. Childress had a pressure-free year soaking up the offensive system, and at 6-foot-5, he’s three inches taller than Millard.
“To sit here and tell you that one guy’s ahead of another guy would’t be fair, and I wouldn’t want to blow one guy’s head up like that,” said Dawson, unwilling to tip his hand as to which candidate holds the early edge.
Even though WVU must replace a near-legendary three-year starter who threw for 11,662 yards and figures to be the first quarterback taken in the NFL draft, that’s all white noise. Holgorsen and Dawson believe the system is sound enough to plug in a successor who need not worry about measuring up to Smith’s numbers.
“Geno was a special player, and all these guys have different sets of abilities. It doesn’t mean they can’t be as successful in the system, it’s just that they might look a little different,” Dawson said.
“Plus, at the end of the day, the ultimate goal is to win games, and we didn’t win that many games last year even with Geno, Stedman (Bailey) and Tavon (Austin). So let’s go out there and win some more games.”
Are the coaching staff shakeups cause for concern?
As of last Tuesday, Dawson was preparing to pinch-hit as running backs coach after Robert Gillespie took a job at Tennessee. By Friday, however, Holgorsen hired Marshall’s JuJuan Seider, a former WVU player and grad assistant who’s cramming to learn the offense same as the incoming recruits.
Gillespie’s departure followed the post-Signing Day exit of offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh for Oklahoma, two later-than-usual moves that left Holgorsen scrambling and his staffers taken aback by the timing.
“I can’t ever remember coaches being offered jobs a week before spring football,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “It seems like (the hiring moves) started earlier and went later this year.”
So the Mountaineers staff was faced with rapidly developing chemistry as it welcomed Seider and new offensive line coach Ron Crook. By comparison, WVU’s hiring of safeties coach Tony Gibson in January seems lightyears ago.
“The way college football is right now — I mean, how many guys have had two jobs already since their season’s been over? It’s getting ridiculous,” Gibson said.
After only six weeks working under Holgorsen, Gibson said the head coach is facilitating the kind of environment assistants appreciate.
“What I think Coach Holgorsen has done, just in the month and a half I’ve been here, is change the culture,” Gibson said. “He has taken ideas from everybody and he’s asking us what we think from the outside looking in. I think the kids see that.
“We have a good time but we work hard. We didn’t take any time off after Signing Day, so we’ve been getting after it. I think we’ve got a good thing going. I’m ready to take it out on the field and get rolling.”
Two players coming off surgeries — receiver Dante Campbell (shoulder) and cornerback Terrell Chestnut (knee) — have been ruled out for spring.
Meanwhile, cornerback Avery Williams and linebacker Jewone Snow will be held out of some contact practices.
Offensive lineman Pat Eger (ankle) and linebacker Wes Tonkery (foot) are expected to be limited in early workouts before returning to full participation later in the spring.
Who’s on the move?
Eger, frequently overmatched at right tackle last season, shifted to guard the final three games . This spring, he’ll also take some reps at center, where four-year starter Joe Madsen is gone and two signees — junior-college player Stone Underwood and prep standout Tyler Tezeno — aren’t reporting until summer.
On defense, Gibson said Darwin Cook will return to his Bandit safety position, but don’t be surprised to see the senior taking reps at the hybrid Star linebacker spot vacated by Terence Garvin. Linebacker Shaq Petteway has the athleticism to play multiple linebacker spots.