West Virginia Football: Mountaineers 2012 Season Preview

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIAugust 26, 2012

West Virginia Football: Mountaineers 2012 Season Preview

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    The buzz around the West Virginia football program is the loudest it has ever been, as the Mountaineers enter their inaugural year as a member of the Big 12 Conference.

    WVU will be led by a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender at quarterback in senior Geno Smith, and perhaps the most prolific pair of wide receivers in the country.

    Head coach Dana Holgorsen has the full backing of the fervent West Virginia faithful, and full cast of assistants with Big 12 experience at his side.

    The Big 12 will be loaded though, as it is expected to be one of the deepest and most talented conferences in the country.

    Still, West Virginia is on the short list of contenders for the conference crown, and Mountaineer Nation is hoping for nothing less.

    Those in, around and behind the program are thinking national title in 2012. Here's what you can expect from the Mountaineers this season.

Offseason Synopsis

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    West Virginia probably had one of the best offseasons of any team in the nation.

    You may remember when the positive vibes began with the Orange Bowl to cap off last season.

    They continued when defensive end Bruce Irvin was a surprise first-round selection in the NFL Draft.

    Then, while most schools were suspending and dismissing athletes, firing coaches and adopting hideous uniforms, the Mountaineers kept it pretty low-key. 

    WVU did add a new grey uniform, which can be seen here (CBSSports.com). They may not be the hottest threads out there, but they are much, much better looking than many of the new ensembles that will be worn by teams around the nation.

    Rather than firing a coach, West Virginia locked Dana Holgorsen into a six-year deal. He also added a couple of assistants to his supporting cast, including defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who will bring in a new 3-4 scheme after the departure of Jeff Casteel.

    In June, the Mountaineer football program earned a sufficient 953 APR (academic progress rate) to contribute to a total athletic department rating of 975—meaning all is well at WVU regarding academics.

    However, there is no debate that the highlight of the offseason came on July 1, when West Virginia officially joined the Big 12 Conference. 

    It was one of the proudest moments in WVU athletics history, and is one of the main reasons behind the excitement in Morgantown heading into the season.

Offensive Preview

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    It's tough to decide where to begin when talking about this offense, so I'll start with the big guys up front.

    The West Virginia offensive line will return three seniors each with a load of experience, and two others who both saw action in all 13 games last year.

    Senior Joe Madsen, one of the better centers in the conference, will be flanked by two other seniors, Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun at guard. Outside of them will be junior Pat Eger and the big (6'5", 334-pound) sophomore Quinton Spain.

    They will be paving the way for a stable of running backs that looks as though it will be led by senior Shawne Alston. Last year's starter Dustin Garrison is currently No. 3 on the depth chart behind Alston and Andrew Buie, as he is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered prior to the Orange Bowl.

    Another experienced senior Ryan Clarke should see some touches at the running back position as well.

    On the outside, WVU returns one of the most talented receiver tandems in the nation. Last year, junior Stedman Bailey broke the school record for receiving yards (1,279) and touchdowns (12). He'll hold down the "X" position on the left side, with seniors J.D. Woods and Ryan Nehlen in the "Z" wide receiver position on the right side.

    Last season, Tavon Austin led the nation in all-purpose yardage while in the "H" slot next to Bailey, which will now be taken by true freshman speedster Jordan Thompson. Austin, meanwhile, will slide over to the "Y" slot, where he could see his numbers go even higher.

    The responsibility of distributing the ball to these big time playmakers will go to a senior Heisman Trophy candidate in Geno Smith. The Miramar, Florida native had a record-breaking junior year in 2011, as he went for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns through the air.

    He too is hoping for a number's boost in his second year in Dana Holgorsen's stat-stuffing Air Raid offense. 

    The Holgorsen style is all about distributing the ball to athletes in space.  WVU's production will revolve around the short passing game which will be supplemented by draw running plays and screens.  

    When the defense cheats up, it's over the top to Bailey, the Mountaineers' top deep threat.

    In the end, it'll all be contingent on the decision making and distribution of Smith—the WVU offense will go as he does in 2012, and he has already shown he has the talent to take them very far.

Defensive Preview

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    The 2012 West Virginia defense will look a lot different from the one we saw in 2011.

    Gone is coordinator Jeff Casteel and his 3-3-5 scheme, along with defensive ends Bruce Irvin and Julius Miller. Starting corner Keith Tandy and linebacker Najee Goode are also gone.

    In now is the new defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who will bring with him a 3-4 defensive alignment featuring three down linemen, four linebackers and two safeties.  

    Former safety Terence Garvin—one of the most talented players on this defense—will move down to the "star" linebacker position. Sophomores Jared Barber and Shaq Petteway will likely share time as the "will" linebackers.

    Two experienced juniors, Tyler Anderson and Doug Rigg, are expected to hold down the "buck" and "sam" linebacker slots. Also, keep an eye on redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce and senior Josh Francis.  Francis came to Morgantown from junior college with high expectations and fans and coaches are still hoping he'll turn into a Bruce Irvin-type outside rusher.

    Junior Taige Redman and sophomore Wes Tonkery also figure to be part of the linebacker rotation this year, in what is a deceptively deep group. Finally, keep an eye on sophomore Jewone Snow, who has been out with injury this spring but could figure into the mix at linebacker or on the defensive line.

    The boys up front have a huge task of replacing Irvin and Miller, as only Jorge Wright returns from last year's starting group. However, the cupboard is far from bare, as this year's starting line has a combined 61 games of experience.

    Wright was moved from nose tackle to the outside, where he'll play opposite of the 6'7" junior Will Clarke, who may prove to be the catalyst for the 2012 pass rush. Taking Wright's place on the inside is 6'4" 308-pound junior Shaq Rowell.  

    Despite the loss of Tandy at corner, WVU will still be confident on the outside, at least with its two starters senior Pat Miller and junior Brodrick Jenkins. Miller has nearly a full season of starting experience to his name, while Jenkins came on and proved to be a serious playmaker late last year.

    The safety group will be led by perhaps the biggest hero of the Orange Bowl, junior Darwin Cook, who was also WVU's No. 2 tackler last year. Joining him will be only the second starting true freshman this season, Karl Joseph out of Orlando, Florida. Sophomore Ishmael Banks and an extremely athletic true freshman, K.J. Dillon, may also figure into the mix. 

    Many opposing Big 12 fans and national analysts are quick to discount this defensive unit as a whole, so they are certainly set out to surprise in 2012. The Mountaineers have the talent to be one of the better defenses in the conference, but it is tough to predict how quickly the new scheme will catch on. The good thing is, if the offense performs near its potential, the defense won't have to be great.

Special Teams Preview

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    Consistency will certainly be the key in all three phases of the game for West Virginia. If you don't understand this watch the Orange Bowl, then watch WVU's 2011 loss to Syracuse.

    This will especially be the case on special teams.

    At punter, the Mountaineers saw Corey Smith drop multiple punts inside the 10-yard line, but also shank punts that hardly went 25 yards. At his best, he's great, but at his worst, he is far from reliable.

    The story is somewhat similar at kicker. Senior Tyler Bitancurt started his career off as well as a kicker can, by booting a game winner against Pitt during his freshman year. He also nailed a huge game winner last season against South Florida to give WVU a share of the Big East Conference title, and ultimately send his team to the Orange Bowl.

    On the other hand, he also missed some kicks he should have made. He was still 16-for-22 last year, so with a little more consistency he could be one of the best kickers in the Big 12. 

    If either Smith or Bitancurt falter, sophomore Michael Molinari will be there to replace them.

    The return game should be in good hands, as the electric Tavon Austin is set to return both punts and kicks. Last season, the Mountaineers developed a bit of a punt-fielding problem, as numerous players were cycled through the position thanks to numerous muffs and fumbles.

    While it's great to have a dangerous return man like Austin, there are two things more important than him turning kicks and punts into points: avoiding injury and avoiding turnovers.

    There is no question the WVU offense needs Austin healthy in 2012. The most important thing is protecting him and protecting the ball, so the Mountaineer offense can take the field.

Coaching

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    Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen | Second year at WVU | Overall Record: 10-3

    Associate HC (Defensive Coordinator): Joe DeForest | First year at WVU | Previous: Associate HC at Oklahoma State

    Associate HC (Special Teams Coordinator): Steve Dunlap | 26th year at WVU | Also coaches linebackers

    Assistant Coach (Offensive Coordinator): Shannon Dawson | Second year at WVU | Also coaches receivers

    Assistant Coach (Co-Defensive Coordinator): Keith Patterson | First year at WVU | Previous: Interim HC at Pittsburgh

    Assistant Coach (Offensive Line): Bill Bedenbaugh | Second year at WVU | Previous: Co-OC, Offensive line coach at Arizona

    Assistant Coach (Running Backs): Robert Gillespie | Second year at WVU | Previous: RB coach at Oklahoma State

    Assistant Coach (Cornerbacks): Daron Roberts | Second year at WVU | Previous: WR coach at WVU, Secondary coach for Detroit Lions

    Assistant Coach (Defensive Line): Erik Slaughter | First year at WVU | Previous: DL coach at Stephen F. Austin

    Assistant Coach (Quarterbacks): Jake Spavital | Second year at WVU | Previous: Offensive graduate assistant at Oklahoma State

     

    I'm sure you've noticed that all but one WVU coaching staff member is either in his first or second year with the program. The defensive staff is completely different after the departure of former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Meanwhile, the offensive staff remains virtually unchanged from last season, other than the transition by Daron Roberts (arguably WVU's best recruiter) to the defensive side.

    Joe DeForest is in as the defensive coordinator and joining him is former interim head coach at Pitt, Keith Patterson. The only other addition is defensive line coach Erik Slaughter. This is a relatively young staff, most of whom were brought in to re-energize this program, and that's exactly what they've done.  

    The best part about this staff is nearly all of the coaches have experience in the Big 12, which will make the transition much easier.  

    The whole operation all revolves around head man Dana Holgorsen, who was accepted by WVU fans with open arms since before he even coached a single down of football in Morgantown. His high-flying offense brought touchdowns back to "Touchdown City," and promises to be even better in its second year of implementation. 

Schedule

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    Just one look at this schedule, and it's easy to see why the move to the Big 12 Conference is such a big deal for West Virginia.

    The biggest difference is the switch from five non-conference games to just three. The out-of-conference annual matchup against a nationally respected program or SEC school is gone, but it will be replaced by tough Big 12 games down the road.

    Maryland and Marshall are still on the schedule, and this year's FCS matchup will come against James Madison at FedEx Field in Landover, MD.

    Outside of that, Connecticut is replaced by Baylor, Syracuse by Texas, Rutgers by Oklahoma and so on down the road:

    *All rankings are based on preseason AP Poll, all times EST.

    Date Opponent Site Time TV
    Sept. 1 Marshall Morgantown, WV 12 p.m. FX
    Sept. 15 James Madison Landover, MD 4:30 p.m. Root Sports
    Sept. 22 Maryland Morgantown, WV TBD  
    Sept. 29 Baylor Morgantown, WV TBD  
    Oct. 6 No. 15 Texas Austin, TX TBD  
    Oct. 13 Texas Tech Lubbock, TX TBD  
    Oct. 20 No. 22 Kansas State Morgantown, WV TBD  
    Nov. 3 No. 20 TCU Morgantown, WV TBD  
    Nov. 10 No. 19 Oklahoma State Stillwater, OK TBD  
    Nov. 17 No. 4 Oklahoma Morgantown, WV TBD  
    Nov. 23 Iowa State Ames, IA 3:30 p.m. ABC
    Dec. 1 Kansas Morgantown, WV TBD  

     

    WVU Ticket Information

    Of course, the start time and TV coverage for many of these games will be determined at a later date.  

    Currently, LSUFootball.net has a listing of every game nationally and has tentative start times for a few of West Virginia's Big 12 games that may be broadcast on Fox.  You can check it out at the link above, but here are the tentative start times they have listed:

    WVU @ Texas: 7 p.m. on Fox

    Kansas State @ WVU 7 p.m. on Fox

    Oklahoma @ WVU 7 p.m. on Fox

One Game WVU Absolutely Will Win: Kansas Jayhawks

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    With the transition to the Big 12, sure wins are few and far between.  Perhaps the only sure-fire (in-conference) win for West Virginia is its final game with Kansas.

    It'll be senior day for the Mountaineers, and the Jayhawks may come into Morgantown winless in conference play.

    After finishing last in the league last year, Kansas fired head coach Turner Gill and brought in Charlie Weis.  The former Notre Dame head coach and Florida assistant brought quarterback Dayne Crist with him as well, who played under him at UND. 

    Crist will have a couple of solid targets in D.J. Beshears and converted quarterback Kale Pick, and an established runner in James Sims once he returns from suspension.

    However, that won't be enough for the Jayhawks to compete in one of the deepest leagues in the nation, or for them to keep up with West Virginia's offense.

    Realistically, just about any team in the Big 12 could find a way to beat the Mountaineers—except for Kansas.

One Game That's a Toss Up: Oklahoma Sooners

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    West Virginia will have the benefit of facing the No. 1 team in the Big 12 preseason rankings in Morgantown, but this game could absolutely go either way.

    Both teams have Heisman-caliber quarterbacks and talented receivers.

    I give the overall edge on the offensive side of the ball to West Virginia, but on the defensive side I give it to Oklahoma.

    Dana Holgorsen, a former assistant at Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, knows how Bob Stoops and Oklahoma play.

    On the other, hand Stoops and OU also know about Holgorsen's spread offense.

    This may be the most highly anticipated game of the Big 12 season and could end up deciding who wins the Big 12 title. 

One Game WVU Could Lose: Texas Longhorns

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    In just its second Big 12 Conference game and its first road game of the season, West Virginia will travel to Austin to take on Texas.

    Though the Longhorns have been down the last few years, they are still considered to be the kings of the conference.  If you don't believe me, ask Texas A&M if the Longhorn Network had anything to do with its decision to leave the league.

    UT will be WVU's first big test in the conference, as the Longhorns will be looking to deliver a not-so-friendly welcome to the conference newcomers.

    Texas has its question marks at quarterback, but will have the best running game in the Big 12, thanks to its three-headed running back monster, made up of Malcolm Brown, Joe Bergeron and true freshman Johnathan Gray. 

    The Longhorn defense may be the best in the conference. The UT defense will start up front with two of the most talented pass rushers in the nation, Jackson Jeffcoat and Alex Okafor. Texas also probably has the best secondary in the conference led by safety Kenny Vaccaro and supplemented by standout corners Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs. 

    If the Mountaineers can stop the run, they can win, but if the UT rushers have their way with the WVU defense, it will be a long day in Austin.

Offensive MVP Prediction: QB Geno Smith

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    West Virginia has one of the most dangerous offensive players in the nation in Tavon Austin at inside receiver. Austin, however, may not even be the team's leading receiver in 2012.

    No matter how the receiving numbers shake down, the recognition will likely go to the man distributing the ball—quarterback Geno Smith.

    The senior is on the early short list of Heisman contenders and some experts have already predicted him as the most likely winner of the trophy. Smith was a 4,000-yard passer in his first year in Dana Holgorsen's pass-happy offense, and he could touch 5,000 by the end of his 2012 campaign. 

    He has an experienced offensive line in front of him, dependable backs beside him and multiple talented receivers at his disposal.

    Shawne Alston at running back, Austin and Bailey at receiver and Joe Madsen at center (not to mention the rest of the line) will all deserve recognition at the end of the season—but Smith will be the one who receives it. 

Defensive MVP Prediction: STAR LB Terence Garvin

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    Former safety Terence Garvin will be moving down to the hybrid "star" linebacker position. Regardless of the switch, No. 28 will be the leader of this defense.

    He underwent knee surgery late last season which caused him to miss time at the end of the year and virtually the entire spring. Now, he's back at full health and atop the depth chart.  

    Last season, he was a tackling machine, netting 72 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two interceptions, all despite missing two games. 

    He'll now move a bit closer to the line, which may result in even more tackles and more plays made.

    His spot in the hybrid 3-4 scheme will allow him to move freely and use his size, length and athleticism to harass offenses around the Big 12.

    Some other candidates for this award are defensive lineman Will Clarke, safety Darwin Cook and inside "sam" linebacker Doug Rigg.

    Clarke could prove to be a strong pass-rushing replacement for Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin. Rigg had a solid 2011 season and may be the player who blossoms in the new defensive scheme. Meanwhile, Cook led all defensive backs with 85 tackles last year, to go with two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. 

    With the defensive losses, all of these players will be depended on heavily in 2012.

Newcomer of the Year Prediction: IR Jordan Thompson

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    Only two true freshman have earned a starting spot on the initial depth chart for West Virginia heading into the 2012 season.

    One is inside receiver Jordan Thompson. "Squirt," as he's known by his teammates, may be undersized at just 5'7" 164 pounds, but he's already proven that he's a talented receiver.

    He had eight catches for 66 yards and a touchdown in the spring game and has been working his way up the depth chart ever since.

    The Katy, Texas native enrolled early at West Virginia when he was just 145 pounds, but has already added 20 pounds.

    This year he'll take Tavon Austin's position in the "H" slot next to WVU's all-time single-season receiving leader Stedman Bailey, as Austin will move across the formation to the "Y" slot.

    He won't need to match the 1,186 yards of production Austin had last year in the "H," but there should still be plenty of passes to go around.

    His biggest challenger for NOTY will be the other freshman starter, safety Karl Joseph. He could have a huge impact early, but Thompson is much more likely to receive the recognition at receiver.

Best NFL Draft Prospect

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    Quarterback Geno Smith is undoubtedly West Virginia's top NFL Draft prospect for the 2012-13 season. He is one of the top five quarterbacks in what looks to be a deep QB draft class and projects as a second-round pick right now.

    However, if he has another excellent season, he could easily move up to the first round. 

    At 6'3" 220 pounds, he has sufficient size to be an NFL quarterback and he also has more than enough speed to compete at the next level. He doesn't have the speed to be considered a true running threat, but he is mobile enough to navigate the pocket and escape up field if absolutely necessary.

    He has shown good arm strength and accuracy, but won't necessarily wow anyone in either department.

    He's a great leader and has shown a commitment to improvement. This offseason Smith elected to put in some serious work over having some restful downtime.

    Over the summer he attended the Manning Passing Academy as a student, and then went to the Elite 11 quarterback competition as a counselor and instructor to the top high school quarterback prospects in the nation.

    He's hoping that all this hard work will pay off, not only on the field in 2012, but at the Radio City Music Hall in April as well.

Top 3 Twitter Follows

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    John Antonik—@JohnAntonik | Director of New Media, WVU Sport Communications

    Chances are you don't know who John Antonik is. Well, he happens to be one of the best people to follow if you are a West Virginia sports fan, not only for football, but for all sports. He always comes through with excellent WVU stats that you really won't be able to find anywhere else and will keep you up to date on what's happening within the athletic department. One of the best in the business and a must-follow for Mountaineer fans.

    Only 3 times has WVU started the season in AP poll and improved its position at the end of the year. It happened last year ... #wvusports

    — John Antonik (@JohnAntonik) August 18, 2012

    Daron Roberts—@CoachDKR | WVU Cornerbacks Coach

    Daron Roberts is probably one of the most interesting members of the West Virginia coaching staff both on and off the net.  On Twitter, he chronicles his recruiting trips (as much as is allowed by the NCAA), as well as his culinary escapades (most of which involve mouth-watering BBQ) and also provides plenty of motivational wisdom.  The native Texan has his master's degree and Juris doctorate from Harvard and previously coached with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Detroit Lions.

    Day 14: You are the CEO of your own company. Do something to make your stock value rise. #stayonthegrind

    — Daron Roberts (@CoachDKR) August 17, 2012

    Jon Kimble—@WVUMascot | The Mountaineer

    This is the official Twitter account of one of the few mascots in college football who can actually talk. He carries a custom-made musket and wears tailor-made buckskin clothing, complete with an authentic coonskin cap. If you want an inside look at the true passion of Mountaineer Nation, the Mountaineer is a must-follow. He travels all around the state and country (apparently tracking down Lee Corso) and he meets WVU fans wherever he goes, sharing his experiences with his followers.

    While giving blood, all the nurses where in shock...first time they have ever seen someone who who's blood was blue and gold!

    — Jon Kimble, Mtnr (@WVUMascot) August 22, 2012

Bowl Bound: Tostitos Fiesta Bowl

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    As you'll find out further in the next slide, I predict West Virginia finishing as the Big 12 champions, but just outside of the national title picture.

    That will put them in the Fiesta Bowl, likely against an at-large opponent.

    Of course, it's nearly impossible to predict exactly which teams will go where in the BCS, as there are just so many possibilities.

    With USC and Oregon both in the preseason title talk out of the Pac-12, it may work out that whichever one of them doesn't win the conference will end up with an at-large BCS bid.

    In the end, I see Oregon and USC splitting their two games (one in for the Pac-12 championship and one in Los Angeles), leaving both in the BCS and both out of the national title.

    Either matchup would be enticing, not only for the fans, but for the Fiesta Bowl committee as well. A game against USC would pit two of the nation's top quarterbacks (and two likely Heisman finalists) in Geno Smith and Matt Barkley. 

    In a WVU vs. Oregon matchup, arguably two of the most exciting and explosive players in the nation—Tavon Austin and DeAnthony Thomas—would face off.

Final Prediction

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    West Virginia will finish at 11-1 (8-1) and atop the Big 12 Conference.

    The one loss will come at Texas, but the Mountaineers will lock up the conference title when they take down Oklahoma in Morgantown on Nov. 17.

    Every team in the league has something to worry about heading into the season, but WVU's schedule sets them up pretty nicely to win the league. 

    The Mountaineers will have the No. 1 offense in the conference and one of the best in the country. They have a dependable Heisman-caliber quarterback, dynamite receivers, an experienced offensive line across the board and enough talent at running back to keep opposing defenses honest.

    Defensively, WVU is good but not necessarily great. The unit will be solid and as good as it has to be to win games opposite what will be one of the highest-scoring offenses around.

    Oklahoma will actually finished tied with WVU at 11-1 (8-1), though its lack of depth at offensive line is the difference maker, forcing quarterback Landry Jones into the same interception issues he faced last season. OU will still take down Texas in the Red River Rivalry game. However, Texas will pick up its second loss at Kansas State, and KSU will lose on the road to Oklahoma and West Virginia.

    In the end, West Virginia will win the conference because two of its three games against the top three conference contenders will come within the comfortable confines of Milan Puskar Stadium.