Concerns spring eternal as WVU opens football practice
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Spring football begins today at West Virginia, and the Mountaineers have plenty to worry about for the next five weeks and 15 practices.
Dana Holgorsen is the team's new offensive coordinator and he's ready to teach his version of the spread offense with four new assistant coaches.
Jeff Casteel is still the defensive coordinator and he has the same three assistants on staff he's had the previous three years, but they have to replace seven players who started for one of the nation's best defenses last season.
In charge of it all is Bill Stewart, who as the head coach has to manage both of those situations, as well as his own, which ends whenever the 2011 season ends.
And then there's Keli Cunningham, the associate athletic director for compliance and governance at a school that not only was accused by the NCAA of five major and one secondary violations last August, but also self-reported a secondary violation four days later when the Mountaineers started preseason practice.
Cunningham was hired after all of that and this is the start of her first full-time cycle with football. It's her job to make sure no one does anything they shouldn't be doing.
She has no worries.
"At this point in time, we've done all the things we need to do to be prepared," she said. "We'll have a presence at spring practice, similar to the presence we had, to my understanding, in the summer period.
"It may vary between myself and my staff, depending on what we have on our calendar, but we'll be there and we'll be visible. The purpose is just to observe. I don't expect we need to be there to report any violation or to catch them doing anything they shouldn't be doing."
Cunningham said WVU has handled all the rules awareness courses that are standard before spring practice and involve the coaching staff and the support staff. Compliance also met with the new coaches once they were settled just to make sure everyone knew everything and no one had any questions.
Holgorsen said in February he'd met and exchanged phone calls and emails with Cunningham so often that "I feel like we're dating." Cunningham said the old and new parts of the staff have been just as diligent.
"I think what we're doing is sufficient," she said. "The coaches do a tremendous job picking up the phone. That's not just for Dana, but across the board. They ask questions just to be certain. The staff is educated on all these things, but it doesn't hurt to pick up the phone and say, 'Hey, Kel, here's the situation. I just want to make sure it's correct.' Almost every time, the answer is 'Yep, that's right. Nothing has changed.'"
Cunningham said "it's no secret we have a more heightened awareness" given WVU's involvement with an active NCAA investigation, but she doesn't feel the school will be targeted during spring practice.
When the Mountaineers started preseason practice last summer, they confessed to the NCAA they wore protective equipment that rules prohibited on the first two days.
Prior to that, the NCAA accused WVU of a lack of oversight and a failure to promote compliance for, among many things, allowing a bunch of people to do a bunch of things they were not allowed to do.
"I think the NCAA has a lot on its plate, but I think they trust that as an institution we have addressed the issues and corrected them," Cunningham said. "We clearly outlined within our report to the NCAA what we've done and we're moving forward with that. I don't think there's any need to be on top of us more than the next institution."
Spring football offers plenty for Cunningham and WVU to be on top of themselves. It is specifically structured by the NCAA.
The 15 practices must be within a 34-day period that omits spring break, university exam days and days the school is closed due to inclement weather. The practices may feature intrasquad scrimmages and a spring game, but only a limited number. Days when the team meets only for conditioning and/or film don't count toward the 15 practices.
Only 12 practices can involve contact and the first can't happen before the third day of practice. On non-contact days, helmets are the only protective equipment allowed. On contact days, only eight may feature tackling and only three of those eight days can have a scrimmage. On contact days with no tackling, the school has discretion over what the team does to constitute contact.
In all, players are limited to 20 total hours per week and no more than four hours per day of what the NCAA defines to be "postseason countable athletically related activities."
"We've already done this, but you obtain a calendar from them that basically outlines the spring practice period," Cunningham said. "You take that and look to see they conduct everything within the rules. They build their own calendar. We don't dictate that for them. But that way, we obviously know what the plan is and we have documentation of the specifics for what can and can't happen."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.