MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Because each thousand-mile journey begins with a single step, members of the West Virginia football team stepped through snow and ice Sunday toward the shelter of the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility, where spring practice began with the first of three non-contact workouts.
Based upon what we last saw of the Mountaineers—season-ending losses to 3-9 teams Kansas and Iowa State—it might appear WVU has more than a thousand miles to make up before staring across at Alabama on Aug. 30. Teams do transform themselves, however, and particularly veteran teams like the one coach Dana Holgorsen discussed while donning his vortex visor.
“There shouldn’t be as much teaching these guys what to do, but how to do it properly,” Holgorsen said, “because we’ve got a lot more experience coming back than we did a year ago.
“Losing (rushing leader) Charles Sims and (TFL leader) Will Clarke is going to hurt, but other than that, we’re not losing much.”
Counting specialists, the Mountaineers bring back 17 players with starting experience (a total that could grow to 18 if cornerback Travis Bell earns reinstatement from indefinite suspension). Such continuity allows coaches to be more intricate … and more demanding.
“We’ll be less patient with mental mistakes,” Holgorsen said, noting that players “should have a handle on what we’re doing.
“That is why we are pretty eager to get started. We wanted to get these three days in to be able to introduce some stuff so when we come back (from spring break) we can get into the nuts and bolts of really being able to play the game. We were not able to do that last year until the middle of August.
With that, let’s segue to the always-trusty “five questions” format for organizing this spring’s most notable talking points. (We’d toss out more, but then what would be left to discuss between now and March 22, which is the next time we’ll be able to glimpse a practice?) To the list:
1. An unofficial return to the 3-3-5?
New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson still calls it a 3-4, but late last season West Virginia began migrating back toward a nickel-based defense. (See cornerback Daryl Worley opening at weakside Will linebacker against Iowa State).
Now there’s converted safety K.J. Dillon listed as the first-teamer at Spur linebacker—the spot Isaiah Bruce manned in 2013. Even the “bulked-up” current iteration of Dillon remains 30 pounds slighter than Bruce, who weighs in at 231 and has moved to the strongside Sam position.
This allows WVU to be more athletic and better suited to match the spread offenses so prominent across the Big 12. You would also presume it allows for more varied blitz packages.
If there’s a playing-time sacrifice, it appears to be junior linebacker Jared Barber (sidelined this spring while recovering from knee surgery). Barber started alongside Nick Kwiatkoski in the middle last fall and was the squad’s third-leading tackler with 71 stops, but now he projects as one of Kwiatkoski’s backups.
Against a pro-set team like Alabama, however, WVU can go back to four conventional-sized linebackers by deploying the 225-pound Marvin Gross at Spur, or by replacing the Spur with another run-stopper in the middle—see Al-Rasheed Benton or Barber—in a more standard 3-4 alignment.
2. How will WVU use the Dreamius Smith/Rushel Shell combo?
Productive one-and-doner Charles Sims had 253 touches last fall, while the rest of West Virginia’s running backs combined for 159. Though Wendell Smallwood, Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie share some of Sims’ pass-catching versatility, they don’t figure to command the carries that Smith and Shell will.
Can one grab the coaches’ fancy and emerge as a clear-cut No. 1? Even with West Virginia’s increasing affinity for two-back sets, it seems unlikely Smith and Shell will line up much together (save for an occasional short-yardage package).
Sporting only a combined 11 catches through 24 Division I games, they have yet to showcase receiving skills that would create coverage worries. Smith, however, displayed fluid route-running and soft hands last spring. And during one emphatic 75-yard run at Oklahoma, he showed an awesome power/speed combination.
That led running backs coach JaJaun Seider to give Smith a pointed offseason message: “If you ain’t playing on Sunday it’s your own fault.”
Yet the evaluation demanded Smith become more reliable by improving his blocking and running with more pop.
“If you watch what Dreamius did in the Oklahoma game, he ran behind his pads and then ran away from folks,” Seider said. “The thing that nobody talks about is Dreamius might be our fastest running back. Dreamius has got it all. But now, it’s about can he be consistent?
“I’ve been been showing him clips of what he can be and showing him clips of what he shouldn’t be, like when he stops his feet on contact. Hell, go forward for another 2 or 3 yards. His lower body is so strong, if he just falls forward he’s going to pick up the extra yards.”
3. Who’ll ring the Bell at cornerback?
Excuse the pun, especially with regard to a player who has been excused from the team. Yet Travis Bell was a nine-game starter, and considering that he played so much in his first year at the position, his ceiling would have been raised for 2014.
Then came last December’s DUI, which marked Bell’s second arrest in 10 months and made his status cloudy. After a team source told MetroNews earlier this week Bell would miss spring practice, Holgorsen clarified Sunday that Bell had been suspended since January and was allowed to remain on scholarship “to work toward his degree.”
Losing Bell is hardly a backbreaker, considering the immensely talented Worley supplanted him as a starter during three late-season games. Yet the possibility of Bell returning for his senior season can impact depth at a position where WVU still needs help. Icky Banks, merely functional as a 12-game starter at the opposite corner, returns for his senior year, and two other returnees—third-year sophomore Brandon Napoleon and redshirt junior Terrell Chestnut—have yet to establish themselves as Big 12-caliber players.
That leaves the window open for junior-college midterm enrollee Keishawn Richardson to make an impression. He already sounds like a favorite of cornerbacks coach Brian Mitchell, who recruited Richardson away from a Wisconsin offer.
“He gets it—has a good football IQ,” Mitchell said. “It’s very rare that you have a young man come into for offseason program and not miss a rep. He has not missed any reps, and that’s like, ‘Wow.’
“We’re talking the sheer volume that we’re putting these guys through, stressing them at every opportunity. Usually kids that have not been in the program are not used to working at that pace that (conditioning coach) Mike Joseph is putting them through. But Keishawn hasn’t missed even one rep.”
Look for sophomore Nana Kyeremeh, coming off 2013′s medical redshirt, to be a factor also.
4. Will offensive tackles be improved?
While the Mountaineers must replace two fifth-year seniors at tackle, Curtis Feigt and Nick Kindler were guys revered more for their hard work than their dominant performances. So even with less experience at the position this time around, the upside of Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas looks higher.
Pankey appeared at left tackle in seven games as a redshirt freshman and may have become a starter if not for last spring’s pesky ACL tear (from which he still returned in six months). At 6-foot-5 and 323 pounds, Pankey blends prototypical size with agility and doesn’t figure to be pushed by the likes of former walk-on Michael Calicchio or still-developing redshirt freshman Grant Lingafelter.
Lucas (6-4, 312) shifted to right tackle from left guard, where he was inconsistent in four starts before Quinton Spain moved inside. He will be challenged by lanky junior college transfer Sylvester Townes (6-6, 285) and redshirt freshman Marcell Lazard (6-6, 293), who entertained some high-profile offers before signing with WVU in 2013.
“Adam just got better and better last season, and Marquis played tackle before (in high school),” said offensive line coach Ron Crook. “It made sense to go with the guys who have been here and played in games and give them first shot.”
5. Can Skyler Howard get it done?
Some fans have become enchanted with Howard’s junior college highlight video, but is he a genuine threat to win the quarterback job or simply a guy brought in to add depth? (Remember: West Virginia was one blindside hit away from Logan Moore taking game snaps late last season, so the need to sign somebody was pressing.)
Despite his non-ideal height, the 5-11 Howard could be a gem, a guy with a Texas-sized chip on his shoulder who’s intent on proving wrong all the programs who ignored him despite productive high school numbers. Perhaps he’s capable of pushing injured frontrunner Clint Trickett. Then again, some folks held high hopes for Chavas Rawlins, too.
The upcoming spring practices will afford Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson a chance to stress Howard in game-like situations, to see what he can do and whether he truly belongs.