I'm here to toss out a little unconventional wisdom.
The conventional wisdom is that WVU's high-flying offense (Pat White, Noel Devine, and assorted other fast guys) will outscore enough teams to compensate for a defense that was devastated by losses after last season, returning only four starters.
I think the opposite actually is true.
It is WVU's offense that has a new offensive coordinator and a new offensive scheme, not the defense, which returns Jeff Casteel (last year's defensive coordinator of the year) and its odd-stack 3-3-5 defense.
On offense, White will be passing more. Devine will be in motion more. The offensive line no doubt will have some different assignments. I don't think it will be completely unfamiliar—new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen (late of Wake Forest) has called this "Pat White's offense," meaning they're tailoring it to the two-time Big East Offensive Player Of the Year.
But there are new terms and new plays. There are more plays, for one. Last year's fullback, Owen Schmitt, now with the Seattle Seahawks, said earlier this summer that last year's WVU offense had 12 plays and maybe, ran just six of them.
For his entire college career, White has been told to pull the ball down and run if his first receiver is covered. Now, he's being told to hang in the pocket and look for second and third choices. That's different and no doubt will lead to some sacks and interceptions.
More motion means more motion penalties.
The new running backs being counted on to spell Devine have fumbled too much in camp for Coach Stewart's liking.
I do not believe this offense will sputter. The news coming out of camp is that White is picking it up well. But it is new and it might be bumpy at first.
That's where the defense comes in.
True, there are only four returning starters, but what starters they are: Freshman all-American defensive tackle Scooty Berry, Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP Reed Williams (if his surgerated-on shoulders heal up), decorated linebacker Mortty Ivy, who is having a splendid camp, and defensive back Quinton Andrews, who has been the team's top tackler and had a touchdown-stealing interception in the Fiesta Bowl.
Doubters correctly point out that leaves seven holes to fill on a defense that was Top 10 last year. But from the sound of the reports from camp, that only means this defense will get an upgrade.
In the defensive backfield, 6'4" freshman safety Robert Sands sounds like he's almost locked down a starting safety job with his speed (interceptions) and power (a stop-dead tackle of 240-pound running back Terence Kerns). Andrews has the other safety position.
At one corner, all-American JuCo transfer Ellis Lankster (who had a magnificent 120-yard interception return—he went east-west a lot—last year nullified) has one spot secured and will step in for the breathtakingly-reckless-but-not-really Vaughn Rivers returning punts.
Amazingly, offensive athlete Brandon Hogan, who was set to be a slot/receiver, was moved to defense and is making such a mark (fumble recoveries, interceptions) that he may end up at the other corner. Further, there's deep competition behind both corners.
At linebacker, there appears to be an abundance of speed. It sounds like Ovid Goulbourne is the fastest linebacker followed by J.T. Thomas. Thomas made some key hits in the Fiesta Bowl. Coach Stewart said that the bigger Ivy was playing as fast in scrimmage today as Thomas.
If Williams cannot come back, Pat Lazear will step in. The studliest stud of all may be Najee Goode—245 pounds, who is as fast as a safety. Stewart can't quit raving about him.
Earlier this week, Andrews said the linebackers are so good that they're taking all the tackles away from the defensive backs. "You're running full speed up the middle and then they clean it all up," he said. "You get there and look around, like, what the heck happened?"
On the defensive line, the Mountaineers got a gift when the NCAA cleared tackle Pat Liebig to play. He was a role-player when he last played in 2006, so he's likely to provide more minutes and experience than sacks and blow-ups.
For that, look to Zac Cooper, former linebacker converted to speed-rusher. WVU fans saw what speed on the ends did in the Fiesta Bowl—the overstuffed Oklahoma line couldn't block Johnny Dingle and Berry from the ends, which either got to quarterback Sam Bradford or caused holding penalties.
There are also some athletic young players on the line, such as Julian Miller and Chris Neild.
WVU blitzed Bradford from the line, from the cornerback position, from the safety position, and from linebacker.
I expect to see more of it this season. What this defense lacks in experience, I expect it to make up for in speed and skill.
And once the offense totally synchs up with Mullen's new schemes (pass to a tight end over the middle, anyone?), the 2008 Mountaineers should be scary indeed.
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