West Virginia Football: After Spring, Many Questions Remain Unanswered
On April 30, the West Virginia Mountaineers held their annual Gold-Blue Game to officially mark the end of spring practice.
While the record 21,029 fans at the game got to see stars like seniors Noel Devine and Jock Sanders, as well as junior Robert Sands play in the game, linebacker J.T. Thomas, defensive lineman Scooter Berry, and projected starting quarterback Geno Smith all roamed the sidelines in street clothes.
My first spring game as a WVU student left me, and I'm sure many of the other Mountaineer fans across the state, asking some questions.
But before we get to those, here's a quick recap of the scrimmage for those of you who weren't there.
The scoring, which was dominated by a Blue team that won the game 38-0, started off late in the first quarter when sophomore running back Shawne Alston ran one in from a yard out.
In the second quarter, the Blue struck twice. The first coming on an impressive 38-yard field goal off of the foot of Alabama transfer Corey Smith before a seven-yard Devine touchdown extended the lead to 17-0 at the half.
The Mountaineers unleashed their passing attack in the second half, as all three scores in the final two quarters came through the air.
Sophomore Stedman Bailey was the recipient of two of them, while Sanders had the other one.
Coley White, who took every snap of the game due to a broken bone in Smith's foot, was very impressive. White finished the game, completing 22 of 36 passes for 189 yards with three touchdowns.
As expected, Devine was solid, finishing with 73 yards on 12 carries and his score. But it was Alston who was the biggest surprise in the ground game, toting the rock eight times for 51 yards.
Sanders caught eight balls for 70 yards and Bailey picked up 52 yards on three catches.
The three big defensive standouts in the game were Will Clarke, Darwin Cook, and Anthony Leonard.
Clarke, a redshirt freshman who is a tank at 6'6", 265 pounds, had a game-high eight tackles from his spot at defensive end.
Cook, who played safety for the Gold squad, looked great and made some big hits in the secondary, finishing with five tackles. Cook's success in the game, as well as in the rest of spring practice, is even more impressive when you consider that when he was recruited out of high school, he played defensive line.
And after spending the last few seasons serving as Reed Williams' backup, Leonard appears to be ready to take over the spot and be a big-time contributor in WVU's 3-3-5 stack defense.
He led the Blue team with a team-high five tackles, 1.5 sacks, and three tackles for loss.
Well, that's all for the recap, now on to some questions that I left the game with.
Why Were the Teams Split Up the Way They Were?
This might have been the weirdest thing about the game. The entire first team made up the Blue squad, while the second and third teams made up the Gold—part of the reason the score was what it was.
For the most part, the spring game is usually when the fans get to take a look at which players stand out and who all could have a shot at being a contributor for the team.
This is usually a lot easier to tell because the first team offense plays the first team defense and the backups on offense go up against the backups on defense, helping you see which players might be able to step up and make plays once the season starts if they can have a good summer.
I don’t really think having the game set up like this really gives that a chance to happen.
The only players that really got their chance to stand out in this year’s game were the ones that were on the Gold team’s defense. The Blue offense and defense, although very impressive, didn’t really stand out a lot because, well, the competition just wasn’t as good.
And the Gold offense didn’t have any standouts because they didn’t have any chance to get anything started because of the smothering Blue defense.
Where Will Coley White Fit Into the Offense This Season?
At the end of last season, White asked the coaching staff if he would be able to make the move to wide receiver.
But in the offseason, Geno Smith broke a bone in his foot meaning that White would be the only person available at full health for spring practice to play quarterback, and he took advantage of the opportunity.
Now, after his success in practice and then in the spring game, it only seems right that, at least at the beginning of camp, White gets a look at quarterback before making the permanent switch over to receiver.
Though I think that in the end, he will be playing receiver, he will have his own “Wildcat” package in the offense, much like his brother does with the Dolphins. He’ll be a receiver for the most part, but he’ll see anywhere between 5-10 snaps per game at quarterback.
Will Geno Smith Have Any Competition For the Starting Quarterback Job?
As soon as the 2009 season ended, it was the assumed opinion throughout all of Mountaineer nation that Smith, who took over and played a decent amount of snaps in his freshman when Jarrett Brown went down to injury, would take over the reigns of the WVU offense.
But then everyone started to hear more and more about these two incoming freshmen that the team signed to come in for this year and some people started to get a little skeptical about whether Smith would actually be the starter.
Surely Geno will win the job. There really isn’t a doubt in my mind.
But the only person that I could see challenging for playing time under center, other than Coley White (see above), would be Barry Brunetti.
The 6'0" Memphis, TN native has some people concerned about possible issues with his size, but has a very, very impressive track record from his prep days that implies that he at least has what it takes to compete for the job.
As a starting quarterback, Brunetti has not lost a game since his seventh grade season and only threw one pick throughout his entire college career.
Like I said though, Smith will win the job.
He has more experience at the position than anyone else who is competing for the job and his style really fits what the team is beginning to move towards under offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen.
Unlike Brown and Pat White before him, Geno is a lot more of a pocket passer and, while he is a very mobile guy, Smith does a lot of his running to make time for his receivers to get open to make a play downfield.
How Much of a Factor Can Stedman Bailey Be?
When looking at how Bailey is going to do this season, there is one thing that stands out in the minds of WVU faithful.
Bailey attended Miramar High School in Florida where he and Geno Smith hooked up constantly for touchdowns in their career for the Patriots. When you add the fact that Smith is very familiar with what Stedman is capable of doing with the way that he played in the spring, as well as the lack of depth and reliable options that West Virginia has at the wide receiver position, it's only natural to think Bailey will have a nice role on this team.
Bailey has a nice mix of good hands and good speed and he should be the fourth option at wide receiver in the slot for this year's edition of Mountaineer football.
How Much Can the Incoming Freshmen Contribute to the Passing Game?
When Logan Heastie and Deon Long, two receivers who were supposed to come in and play a lot of snaps this season, decided to bolt away from the program, a position that was supposed to be one of the strong points of this year's team became a giant question mark.
With the two of them, there were going to be five options that Smith, or whoever the quarterback might be, could look to throw to. Now there are three with a few people fighting to get some time on the field.
We already talked about Stedman Bailey and the possibility of Coley White, but there are three freshmen coming in for this season and two of them stand out as possible impact players.
The first is Ivan McCartney.
Coming out of Miramar High as well, Smith should be familiar with his playing style right from the get-go. "I-Mac" is a big 6'3" receiver who can stretch the field and reminds Rivals.com of Chad Ochocinco.
This is probably a fair comparison considering that the Bengals' star is, in fact, McCartney's cousin.
The other freshman is Quantavious Leslie.
At 6'4", Leslie is another big receiver who can move and actually reminds me of another Bengal and former West Virginia star, the late Chris Henry.
Both of these freshmen should be able to immediately come in and help because they both give the offense another dimension.
With Sanders and Austin as two of the biggest passing threats, having a couple of guys with some size should definitely help balance the offense out.
Can the Tight Ends Step Up and Catch Passes?
It seems like we hear the same things every year. Heading into spring practice, the WVU coaching staff always talks about how they plan on getting the tight ends more and more involved in the offense.
But last year, even with two competent pass catchers at the position, the team's tight ends only caught 16 passes.
This year has been no different as Stew and the rest of the staff has said that both Tyler Urban and Will Johnson will be big for the offense. In the spring game, the duo combined for three catches for 19 yards, but both dropped a couple of passes throughout the course of the game.
If they can show that they have the hands to make the catches, this could actually be the year that the tight end actually becomes a valuable part in the West Virginia passing game.
What Other Backs Can Factor Into the Running Game?
It's no surprise that Noel Devine had a solid spring. Heck, if the Mountaineers can somehow rattle off enough wins to get into a BCS game, Devine might be one of the names thrown around when the Heisman Trophy is discussed.
But, it also isn't a surprise that at his size, Devine probably can't handle 30-plus carries a game the entire season. Which brings up the topic of who else will be able to get a few carries this year.
The thunder to Noel's lightning will undoubtedly be redshirt sophomore Ryan Clarke.
Clarke, who will get most of his playing time at fullback, scored eight touchdowns on just 60 carries and he only looks like he has gotten bigger and quicker this offseason.
A couple others turned a lot of heads throughout the spring session, however.
As mentioned earlier, Shawne Alston was very effective in the Gold-Blue Game and he might have found his way into the rotation.
Daquan Hargrett also played well in a couple of scrimmages in the spring and even though he's only 5'6", he has the speed and (surprising) strength to see the field a little bit this year.
If the Offense Struggles, Can the Defense Keep Us In the Game?
For a team that struggled so much defensively last season, I think that this year's team has an opportunity to not only be one of the better defenses in the Big East, but the nation as well.
With nine of 11 starters returning, this year's unit is more experienced, athletic, and talented than ever.
Up front, Scooter Berry, Chris Neild, and Julian Miller all should be very good and when you add Clarke into the mix, this could be the best defensive line unit in the conference.
A lot of people will think of the loss of Reed Williams as a monster blow to the defense. But, while it is a tough loss from a leadership standpoint, Williams wasn't on the field as much as people think due to injury problems that he had in his last two seasons.
There shouldn't be that much of a drop off from last year's starters to the ones this season. Pat Lazear and J.T. Thomas are back after finishing first and second on the team in tackles last year (with 78 and 76) and Anthony Leonard looks like he has improved a lot.
What really bothered this team last year was stopping the pass. That should be something else that has changed heading into the 2010 season.
Safety Robert Sands has continued to improve and looks to be one of the more promising defensive backs that this team has had in a long time.
When you add Brandon Hogan, Sidney Glover, Brodrick Jenkins, Terrence Garvin, an improving Keith Tandy, and Darwin Cook, the secondary should be much improved and maybe even a strength for this year's team.
What Will Their Record Be?
This year's team is a very interesting case. With so many things that we aren't completely sure of quite yet, I can't really tell how many games that they are going to win.
It could end up being a disappointing eight-win season or, considering how weak the schedule both in and out of the conference is, they could win 10 games and have a shot at playing in a BCS game.
Right now it looks like the road game against LSU will be the toughest game, and more than likely a loss. Throw in a tough end of the year road game against Pitt and games at home against South Florida and Cincinnati, two teams that we never seem to be able to get the best of, I think we will end up losing two games in Big East play.
Final Verdict: 9-3 (5-2, Big East) with losses to LSU, Pitt, South Florida
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