The transition into the Big XII started off so promising for the West Virginia Mountaineers in 2012. However, a 5-0 record and a top-five ranking has turned into a season and a half of turmoil and questions. After upsetting conference powerhouse the University of Texas, the Mountaineers went on to lose six of their final eight games in that season and finished a disappointing 4-8 in 2013.
While school Athletic Director Oliver Luck gave head coach Dana Holgorsen the obligatory “vote of confidence,” he also let it be known that he has high expectations for the program in 2014.
The first step in meeting those expectations is solidifying the quarterback position. The names Major Harris, Pat White, Geno Smith are synonymous with success at West Virginia, but the quarterback position left a lot to be desired last season. After transferring from Florida State University, it was assumed that Clint Trickett would step into the void left by the departure of Geno Smith and the offense would not miss a beat — well, that didn’t happen.
Multiple injuries derailed most of the season and now he must prove that he not only is fully healed, but he has the talent to lead the program. There is depth which breeds competition at the position this season with junior college transfer Skyler Howard true freshman William Crest coming into the program, and even if Trickett wins the job, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson knows that he has help at the position if the injury bug hits again.
Running back is another position with plenty of depth. Even with the departure of Charles Sims, the Mountaineers could go four deep at the position this season. Of the returning players that saw action last season, senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Wendell Smallwood combined for 715 rushing yards on 142 carries. Joining them will be Andrew Buie, who led the team in rushing in 2012 with 851 yards and is coming off of injury, as well as Rushel Shell, a former high school All-American transfer from Pitt.
No matter how much talent the team has in the backfield, the success of the rushing game will depend on how quickly the offensively line comes together as a unit. The linchpin up front will be All-Big XII guard senior Quinton Spain, who will be called on to lead more as the team looks to acclimatize three new starters: redshirt sophomore Adam Pankey at left tackle, redshirt junior Marquis Lucas at right tackle, and redshirt sophomore Tyler Orlosky at center.
The strength of the defense will be the linebacker position, where the team will be led by junior Nick Kwiatkowski. Not only did the junior lead the team in tackles with 85 last season, but he will be the returning interceptions leader with two. Joining him as returning starters will be junior Isaiah Bruce and senior Brandon Golson.
New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will rely on them as well as preseason All Big XII safety junior Karl Joseph to lead the turnaround to a defense that was ranked 99th in scoring defense and 101st in total defense last season.
While the defensive line will be breaking in three new starters, they will go two deep at each position led by junior nose tackle Kyle Rose, who was second in tackles for lost last season with 8.5. If they are able to increase their paltry sack total of 18, it could help improve the -4 turnover margin that placed them 86th in the nation.
The Mountaineers will open the 2014 season in Atlanta against the Alabama Crimson Tide. Even with a laundry list of departures, the Crimson Tide are reloaded for 2014, which will make it difficult for the Mountaineers to start the year with a victory. They also face Towson University and will travel to College Park to take on the Maryland Terrapins before embarking on the nine-game conference schedule.
The schedule has them traveling to Texas Tech, Oklahoma State, Texas and Iowa State while hosting Oklahoma, Kansas, Baylor, TCU and Kansas St. Having to travel to Austin to face the new-look Longhorns led by Charlie Strong will be difficult, as will facing three of the top four teams, including league-favorite Sooners in Morgantown; however, the rest of the schedule has winnable games if they can find stability in the passing game and generate turnovers defensively.
If not, Mountaineer fans should begin to wonder if Holgorsen is the long-term answer as coach.