When Noel Devine and Jock Sanders announced their intention to return for their senior season at WVU, they cited unfinished business. They intend to bring a national title to Morgantown in their final year at WVU.
Bill Stewart seconded Devine and Sanders' lofty goal.
“As the head coach, if I don’t believe we can contend for a national championship, the staff can’t believe it, and the team won’t believe it,” he said.
With Stewart, Devine, and Sanders having laid the gauntlet, I will look into what has to happen for WVU football to do what it has never done.
I give you the five players that have to exceed expectations for WVU to reach college football’s "Promised Land."
Noel Devine, Running Back
It all starts with Noel Devine. Devine finished 2009 with 1,465 yards rushing. That is the fourth best season for a running back at WVU. Those numbers will not be good enough in 2010.
Steve Slaton holds the record for most yards rushing in a season, with 1,744. Devine will need to surpass that record for WVU to contend for the national championship.
Devine has never averaged more than 19 attempts per game in his career. He will have to exceed that number to reach 1,750 yards in 2010.
Devine has averaged 6.5 yards per carry in his career. To reach his goal, Devine will need to average 23 carries per game and maintain his career per carry average.
That raises the question of durability. At 5’8” and 176 pounds, Devine is one of the smallest starting running backs in the country. Can he take the punishment that 23 carries per game exacts on a runner's body?
The answer to that question is an unequivocal "yes!" Devine’s elusiveness keeps him from taking heavy hits. Hits that other running backs absorb with their body Devine does not. Tacklers seldom get a clean shot at Devine.
Devine’s cutback ability, combined with his blazing speed, will allow him to complete his part of WVU’s mission.
With Devine’s aspirations of an NFL career, reaching these benchmarks will go a long way toward solidifying his place in the draft. More importantly, it will help insure WVU’s football fortunes.
Ryan Clark, Fullback
Another back that needs to perform is Ryan Clarke. Clarke is a 6’0”, 228-pound fullback for WVU. As a red-shirt freshman in 2009, Ryan took 60 carries for 250 yards. That averages to 4.1 yards per carry.
Clarke will need to increase his numbers in 2010, not to the degree that Devine will, but improvement is paramount. Clarke posses a bruising style as a runner, a style that Stewart would like to accentuate in the Mountaineer offense.
First, Clarke must commit to the offseason weight and training program. Clarke will need to add 15 pounds of muscle to his body. Currently Clarke is undersized for his style of running. Adding muscle will also benefit his primary responsibility of lead blocking for Devine.
Clarke should see his average carries per game double from five to 10. Maintaining his average yards per carry at 4.1 or better is the key. These numbers would see Clarke rush for 500 yards in 2010.
To this writer, Clarke represents the perfect complement to Devine. Where Devine is speed and grace, Clarke is power and brawn. While Devine seldom takes a solid hit, Clarke delivers them.
Clarke and Devine’s ability to establish a running game will help the next three players perform better.
Jock Sanders, Slot Receiver
The next key individual is Jock Sanders. Besides being Devine’s backup, Sanders is the starting slot receiver for WVU. He stands 5’7” and weighs 178 pounds.
It is as a slot receiver that Sanders will need to raise his level of play.
In 2009, Sanders showed 72 catches for 688 yards. For his career Sanders averages just over 9.1 yards per reception. Sanders’ numbers have increased each year he has been at WVU. He'll need to continue that trend in 2010.
For WVU to contend on the national stage, Sanders will need to finish the 2010 season with over 82 receptions coupled with a 10.5-yards-per-reception average. In essence, when he catches a pass, it needs to be for first-down yardage more often than not.
Sanders must become the possession receiver that WVU has been searching for. Consistently finding the openings in opposing defenses needs to become Sanders’ staple. When his team needs to move the sticks, Sanders should be the answer.
Although Sanders is not the ideal height, his senior savvy will carry the day. As a running back, Sanders has the necessary vision to see the openings develop. That same running back training will enable Sanders to make defenders miss tackles in open space. That ability will allow Sanders to turn a possession reception into a game-breaking reception.
These are attainable goals for Sanders based on his play to date. Should Sanders achieve them, he will have fulfilled his part of the equation.
Bradley Starks, Wide Receiver
A championship passing attack needs more than one receiver to be successful. WVU will be no different in 2010. Bradley Starks must play to his athletic potential at wide receiver.
Starks is 6’3”, 188 pounds, and runs a true 4.4 forty-yard dash. It is his combination of size, speed, and years in the system that put him on this list. Bradley will be a junior in 2010.
Starks caught 46 passes for 546 yards in 2009. That measures out to just under a 14-yard average per catch. His 46 receptions represent 2.4 catches per game. Each one of these statistics needs vast improvement in 2010.
Starks signed his letter of intent to WVU as a quarterback, then switched to receiver at the start of the 2008 season. Starks has shown glimpses of his potential. He must realize his full potential in 2010.
For WVU to compete for a national title, Starks must produce over 60 catches and average over 17 yards per catch. He must become a 1,000-yard receiver in 2010.
Starks is not a possession-type receiver. Starks is the deep threat with blinding speed and size to go get the football. Starks will face several cornerbacks next year that posses comparative speed. He will face few that have comparative stature.
Eugene Smith, Quarterback
Quarterback Eugene “Geno” Smith is the final player that must perform in 2010.
Smith was a 6’3”, 195-pound freshman in 2009. It is the experiences from that freshman season that will see Geno win the starting position for 2010. The combination of one year of experience and the additional time in the training program at WVU will give him the edge.
Similar to Clarke, Smith must add muscle to his frame for 2010. He should start the season in the 205- to 210-pound range. Although 220 pounds would be optimal, it is too much to ask of one offseason.
Smith’s freshman season saw him complete 65 percent of his passes for an average of 9.6 yards per reception. Both represent solid numbers for a freshman quarterback, accentuating Smith’s potential.
While the completion percentage number is sufficient, the yards per completion are not. As with Sanders, Smith will need to significantly increase his yards per completion for WVU to be ultimately successful.
Should Geno raise his yards per completion to 12, that, combined with a completion percentage north of 65, will make WVU’s passing game formidable. Smith has the necessary passing arm to achieve these goals.
Lest we forget, Geno runs a 4.55 forty-yard dash. Smith has the ability to scramble, and the speed to turn those scrambles into big plays. Smith’s running ability isn’t on par with recent WVU quarterbacks. It is more than adequate to buy time in the pocket, though, keeping teams honest on blitzes.
For 2010 to be considered a success for Smith, he must manage the WVU offense efficiently. Geno has talented playmakers around him; he doesn’t have to carry the team.
Smith, as a sophomore, will need to utilize the ability of his teammates to their fullest. Devine, Sanders, and Starks all possess the speed and playmaking ability to turn an ordinary play into a touchdown.
Balance will be the name of the game for the 2010 version of the Mountaineer offense. WVU no longer needs one or two players to carry the load. WVU will be almost impossible to contain offensively if the aforementioned five reach their benchmarks.
When a defense loads the box to contain Devine and Clarke, Sanders and Starks will begin to salivate over the amount of greenery before them. So too will Devine and Clarke as defenses drop into coverage to stop Sanders and Starks.
I give you the Mountaineer Football version of yin and yang.
Coach Stewart prophesied this balance two years ago when he was hired. It has taken Stewart those two years to recruit and develop the players with the necessary skill sets to fulfill his prophecy.
Will it be enough for WVU to win the coveted national title?
In the immortal words of Jack Fleming, “LET’S BRING ON THE MOUNTAINEERS.”