West Virginia Football: The 10 Most Valuable Mountaineers for 2012

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IAugust 16, 2012

West Virginia Football: The 10 Most Valuable Mountaineers for 2012

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    West Virginia hasn't started a season ranked in the Top 15 in the polls since 2008. That will change this year, as the Mountaineers are expected to be instant contenders in their new home, the Big 12 conference. 

    That's what happens when you win 10 games in the previous season and finish it off with a dominating, record-setting 70-33 victory in a BCS bowl game. 

    That offensive assault is still fresh in the minds of many college football fans, who have seemingly forgotten all about West Virginia's horrific performance at Syracuse or their blowout home loss to LSU last year.

    The main focus going into the 2012 season surrounds second-year head coach Dana Holgorsen, quarterback Geno Smith and the type of potential passing magic that they could brew up this fall. 

    Holgorsen and Smith both appear to be the perfect figures to guide the Mountaineers into the dangerous waters of the Big 12. However, now that old conference foes such as Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Connecticut have been replaced on the schedule by powerhouse programs like Oklahoma, Texas and Oklahoma State, it's difficult to tell just what to expect from the boys from Morgantown this year. 

    This is a team that obviously has the talent and the offensive firepower to compete with any other school in the country, but it remains to be seen if Holgorsen can get his players to rise up to the tough challenge that they're about to face in their new league. 

    If West Virginia truly wants to compete for a Big 12 title in 2012, here's a look at the 10 key players that will have to carry the team to the promised land. 

1. Quarterback Geno Smith, West Virginia

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    Last year, many fans were excited to see how Geno Smith would handle himself during his first season in coach Dana Holgorsen's Air Raid-style offensive system.

    Ultimately, Smith proved to be a perfect fit for the pass-heavy scheme.

    The strong-armed signal-caller finished fourth in the country with 4,385 passing yards, and also threw 31 touchdowns compared to just seven interceptions.

    Now entering his third year as a starter, the 6'3'', 214-pound senior has already proven that he's one of the best overall passers in college football, as few other quarterbacks possess his combination of arm strength, accuracy and awareness. 

    Smith has had another offseason to learn the nuances of Holgorsen's offense, which is bad news for Big 12 defenses, who will be forced to try to slow down the Mountaineers' attack in 2012. 

    After his breakout performance against Clemson in the Orange Bowl, in which he threw for 407 yards and accounted for seven touchdowns, the senior now has legitimate Heisman buzz surrounding his name going into his final season. 

    If Smith can handle the bigger and more athletic defenses he'll face in the Big 12 this year, there's no telling what type of jaw-dropping numbers he could potentially put up in 2012. 

2. Wide Receiver Tavon Austin

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    Tavon Austin is one of the most electric, explosive and versatile playmakers in all of college football. 

    With the Big 12's two best receivers from 2011—Justin Blackmon and Kendall Wright—now both in the NFL, the conference needs a new star pass-catcher, and Austin looks like he could be the one who fills that role this season. 

    The dynamic and dangerous offensive weapon is a home run waiting to happen and he's absolutely lethal once he gets the ball in his hands. Austin certainly proved that last season when he totaled over 2,500 all-purpose yards and scored 11 touchdowns. 

    The 5'9'', 174-pound senior is a true triple-threat, who is capable of causing major destruction and damage as either a receiver, a runner or a returner. 

    Look for Austin to be West Virginia's all-important offensive "X-Factor" in 2012, as he looks to rise to star status in the Big 12 this season. 

3. Star Linebacker Terence Garvin

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    After spending the past two seasons as the starter at safety, Terence Garvin will now assume the starting role as a hybrid "Star" linebacker in the team's new 3-4 defensive scheme this season. 

    Garvin is the most experienced and reliable veteran on West Virginia's defense, and he'll be asked to be one of the unit's key leaders this year.  

    The 6'3'', 221-pound senior has always been a solid and dependable defensive back for the Mountaineers. Especially, last year when he racked up 72 tackles, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions. 

    Now, though, he'll be asked to step out of his comfort zone and take on a new responsibility. 

    Luckily, Garvin is the type of intelligent and instinctive defender who shouldn't have much trouble adapting. He should once again emerge as one of the defense's biggest difference-makers in 2012. 

4. Wide Receiver Stedman Bailey

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    Tavon Austin may have been the one who was showered with postseason accolades and attention for his performance last season, but Austin wasn't the pass-catcher who led the Mountaineers in receiving yards in 2011. 

    That honor actually belonged to Stedman Bailey, who averaged a whopping 17.8 yards per catch and totaled 1,279 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last year. 

    Bailey showed that he's the type of big play receiver who has to be carefully monitored on every single snap. 

    The 5'10'', 193-pound junior played with quarterback Geno Smith at Florida's Miramar High School, and it's quite obvious that the two share a special bond. 

    Smith will once again rely on Bailey to be his trusted target in 2012, which means the speedy and shifty receiver should have no trouble matching his mighty impressive 2011 stats this season.

5. Defensive End Will Clarke

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    West Virginia lost its two most productive pass-rushers from last season—Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, who combined for 14 sacks and 25.5 tackles for loss in 2011. Irvin, who was the No. 15 overall pick of this year's NFL draft, leaves some especially big shoes to fill, but luckily, the Mountaineers have a potential breakout star to replace him in Will Clarke. 

    Clarke has never started a game before, but he did pick up valuable experience last year as a role player, notching 34 tackles and two sacks in 2011. 

    It will be interesting to see how the 6'6'', 269-pound junior fits into the new 3-4 scheme. Clearly, though, he has the size, strength, explosiveness and instincts to excel as both a pass-rusher and a run-stopper in 2012. 

6. Running Back Shawne Alston

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    Last year's leading rusher Dustin Garrison says that he'll be ready to go for the 2012 season, even though he experienced a torn ACL just eight months ago. Still, you would have to expect that the coaching staff will be cautious and careful with Garrison this year, especially early in the season. 

    That means that fellow back Shawne Alston should see a dramatic increase in carries this year. 

    Alston was primarily used in goal-line and short-yardage situations in 2011, only carrying the ball 97 times, but he still managed to rush for 432 yards and 12 touchdowns. 

    The 5'11'', 235-pound senior is a powerful and physical runner who can pound the ball inside the tackles on a consistent basis. He looks like he could end up being the perfect complement to West Virginia's explosive passing attack.  

    If Alston can maintain his stamina and show that he can handle a heavier workload, the coaches should call his number much more frequently in 2012. 

7. Center Joe Madsen

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    After an inconsistent campaign in 2011, West Virginia's offensive line should be one of the strongest parts of the team this season. The Mountaineers return three starters from last year, and they welcome back starting offensive guard Josh Jenkins, who missed all of last season with an injury. 

    There's no question about who the line's linchpin will be this year. Center Joe Madsen has been the centerpiece up front for the past three seasons, starting 38 games in his career, and he'll return to lead the way in 2012. 

    The 6'4'', 305-pound senior is a smart, tough and physical lineman who can handle himself as both a run-blocker and a pass-blocker. 

    After getting embarrassed by defensive lines such as Syracuse, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh last year, it will be interesting to see how Madsen and the rest of the front-five can handle the stronger and more athletic lines that they'll face in the Big 12 this season. 

8. Kicker Tyler Bitancurt

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    The Mountaineers will likely find themselves in a few shootouts this season and a couple of those games could definitely come down to the final possession. That's why having an experienced and confident field goal kicker is so important. 

    Luckily for West Virginia, kicker Tyler Bitancurt has had previous instances where he's been forced to kick a game-winning field goal, and he's shown that he can deliver.  

    Last year, Bitancurt knocked through 16 of his 22 attempts, with his longest coming from 45 yards out. 

    Don't be surprised if the confident and steady senior place-kicker ends up being the unsung hero who helps West Virginia win a conference championship this season. 

9. Strong Safety Darwin Cook

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    The offense obviously got most of the credit for West Virginia's 70-33 blowout victory over Clemson in the Orange Bowl last season. But it was actually safety Darwin Cook who came up with the biggest game-changing play that night. 

    With 10 minutes to go in the second quarter, Clemson was one yard away from plunging into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown to make the score 24-21. However, Cook emerged from a goal-line pile with the ball and proceeded to take it back 99 yards for the momentum-shifting score. 

    With the secondary's key player from 2011, CB Keith Tandy, a sixth-round NFL draft pick, now gone, and Terence Garvin making the move to a hybrid linebacker role, Cook will now be counted on to be the leader of the secondary in 2012. 

    After racking up 85 total stops last year, the 5'11'', 204-pound junior will now enter this season as the team's leading returning tackler. Cook has a big responsibility to handle, as he'll be expected to be a big difference-maker in the defensive backfield in 2012. 

    Opponents like Oklahoma, Baylor, TCU, Texas and Oklahoma State will all employ dangerous passing attacks this season, and it will be up to Cook and the rest of the secondary to step up and slow them down. 

10. Sam Linebacker Doug Rigg

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    Since West Virginia has now shifted to a 3-4 defensive front, the most interesting position unit to watch so far this offseason has been the linebacker corps.

    The only job that is certain right now is the hybrid star linebacker spot manned by converted safety Terence Garvin. The other three positions will likely be filled by Doug Rigg, Jewone Snow, Jared Barber or Josh Francis. 

    Rigg will probably end up as the starter inside at the strong-side position, where he'll be asked to be a valuable presence against opposing rushing attacks. 

    The 6'0'', 242-pound junior is coming off a season in which he notched 30 total tackles, but he'll be expected to produce at a higher rate in 2012. 

    The strong and physical run-stopper may still be a bit of a liability in pass coverage, but there's no doubt that he has the type of toughness and tenacity to bang around inside the box and intimidate opposing ball-carriers this season. 

10 Other Key Mountaineers

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    Running Back Dustin Garrison

    Wide Receiver Ivan McCartney

    Wide Receiver JD Woods

    Offensive Guard Josh Jenkins

    Offensive Tackle Pat Eger

    Nose Tackle Jorge Wright

    Buck Linebacker Jewone Snow

    Weak-side Linebacker Jared Barber

    Cornerback Pat Miller

    Punter Corey Smith