WVU Slide Begins in 2009? Don't Believe It

Frank AhrensSenior Writer IJuly 13, 2008

There seems to be a prevailing thought about the WVU Mountaineers for the 2008 season.

Sure, the team may compete for—may even win—the national championship this season.

But in the next year and in the years after, expect WVU to fall from the ranks of the national elite, now that it’s no longer coached by a charismatic innovator and master recruiter, but instead by a Gomer Pyle who had one feel-good story in him, will win this year with the former coach’s recruits, and is now in over his head.

The easy comparison that the national sportswriters are making is when nice guy/defensive coordinator/players’ choice Larry Coker took over the outlaw Miami program from fiery, younger Butch Davis in 2001.  Coker won a national championship in his first season with Davis’ players, played for it the following year, and then slid into mediocrity the following seasons.

Two responses to this.

One: Win a national championship just this year?  I’ll take it.

Two: I think the naysayers are wrong.

To the first point: Yes, WVU is indeed loaded offensively this year, with senior Heisman hopeful Pat White returning at quarterback, and sophomore Noel Devine taking over running back duties from departed Steve Slaton.

Punishing fullback/folk hero Owen Schmitt and top wide receiver Darius Reynaud are gone, but the offensive line returns intact, Jock Sanders is ready to step in at the slot for Reynaud, and the offense has two veteran wide receivers in Dorrell Jalloh and Tito Gonzalez returning.

Furthermore, speedy underclassmen Brandon Hogan and converted quarterback Bradley Starks, in addition to let’s-hope-he’s-ready-to-stop-underachieving Wes Lyons (whose brother has transferred from Ohio State), fill out the receiver ranks.

On defense, only four starters return, but what starters—linebacker Mortty Ivy, who I believe is ready to have a monster season; Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP linebacker Reed Williams (assuming his shoulder surgeries take); freshman all-American defensive end Scooter Berry; and safety Quinton Andrews, who had an interception in the Fiesta Bowl.

Defensive back Ellis Lankster, who saw considerable time as a backup last year, is set for a starter’s job and a spot as the leading punt returner this season.

This brings me to my second point: recruiting.

This year’s recruiting could have been a disaster for WVU.  The first call the former coach made upon leaving was to his top recruit, telling him before his team.  This looked like a portent of things to come for WVU—the pipeline of blue-chip talent that the former coach had turned toward Morgantown would now be diverted to Ann Arbor.

But when the new Michigan coach lost his top recruit, and to rival Ohio State, that instead turned out to be the portent: The former coach’s Midas touch had been tarnished.

Coach Bill Stewart’s first task was to keep West Virginia’s best high school prospect in years—Parkersburg’s Josh Jenkins—holding to his commitment to attend WVU, which looked wobbly after the former coach left.  Stewart, humble enough to know what he doesn’t know, hired master recruiter Doc Holliday away from Florida, and the two of them locked down Jenkins.

After that, Stewart hired a two-fer: running backs coach Chris Beatty, who immediately opened up the fertile Hampton Roads recruiting grounds, once considered off-limits to anyone but Virginia Tech (both Vicks came from there).  The hire brought immediate results: highly-ranked quarterback Tajh Boyd and wide receiver Logan Heastie.

Stewart got backup running back help in Californian Mark Rodgers, another Devine type, and Terence Kerns, a bruising running back with 4.4 speed.  Kerns was touch-and-go academically, but he credited Coach Stew with holding his hand through the whole process, which persuaded him WVU was the place for him.

Speaking of which, coaches always say the best recruits are current players—White persuaded his little brother, quarterback Coley, whom the Whites say is the most athletic of the family (scary), to come to WVU.

Not everything has worked out for Stewart and his recruiters.  Polynesian pass-rusher Teva Finau, a defensive end who runs with tight end speed, didn’t make grades and will spend another year at a jucoCornerback Jerome Swinton, who Stewart hailed as perhaps the best player in this year’s class, also didn’t make the grades.  Smooth move, Jerome.

And everyone knows that not every heralded recruit pans out.  CoughcoughJasonGwaltneycoughcough.

The point is this: The blue-chip pipeline is hardly closed, the former coach didn’t take all the talent with him, and the continued success of the Mountaineer football program this year—a possible Big East title and BCS bowl berth, and perhaps a shot at the national championship—will only keep the talent flowing.