MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia begins its season Aug. 31 at home against William & Mary, nearly eight full months after an embarrassing bowl loss. Following a lengthy spring and summer preamble to a season that can't arrive soon enough after last season's 7-6 disappointment, the Mountaineers might lose sight of what's important as they hurry to write new history.
Yet that's not likely to happen because it's virtually impossible to lose sight of Mike Calicchio. He's a 6-foot-9, 325-pound offensive lineman with tattooed arms, and he is the embodiment of what the game is supposed to be for student-athletes.
"He's one of those guys on your team that you love to be around because he's so passionate about football," offensive line coach Ron Crook said. "He's into it. He loves it, and he's not passionate about just WVU football. He loves football and he's fun to be around.
"When someone is passionate about it and loves it, it raises the level of excitement and fun the whole group is having, and we do try to put a lot of emphasis on having fun out there even though some of the drills and stuff we do on a daily basis out there is not fun."
Calicchio is a redshirt junior who is still somewhat new to football. He started playing as a senior at Xaverian High School in Brooklyn, N.Y. He played one season at Valley Forge (Pa.) Military Academy before taking Bill Kirelawich up on an offer to walk on at WVU. He later left for C.W. Post before returning last season and ultimately finding a role this year.
The tallest and longest player on the team is the middle man in the three-player shield when WVU punts. Calicchio, linebacker Dozie Ezemma and inside receiver Cody Clay stand a few yards in front of the punter and make sure the opponents don't get anywhere near the action.
"I'm having so much fun with it," Calicchio said. "That's the thing about football people lose track of. Everyone gets so much into the business aspect of it that they forget about why they started playing. Maybe it's because I haven't played that long and I'm still interested in learning about it, but I just love playing."
A funny thing happened to Calicchio during preseason camp. He found himself taking snaps at right and left tackle with the second-team offense.
After all the iterations to work on leverage and hand placement, to refine pass protection sets and double teams in the run game, to master the little tips about playing big, but not too big, he'd finally put one size 18W foot forward.
"He's going to provide depth for us," Crook said. "He's definitely improving and starting to understand more and more about the things we're doing."
Calicchio is just six years into this, though. Some of his teammates have been playing since they were 5 years old.
The youngest of seven children, he started playing football late, somehow staying away even as his brother, Sean, played at UMass. Calicchio was an all-state player after his only high school season and he played in a postseason all-star game that helped him get a spot at Valley Forge in 2009. After playing guard to protect a small center in high school, Calicchio played left tackle and defensive line in prep school.
The size and the versatility caught Kirelawich's attention.
"I don't know where we'll put you," WVU's former defensive line coach told Calicchio, "but one thing we can't teach is size."
Calicchio sat out as he tried to learn to play offensive tackle. He watched the 2010 season deteriorate and had a bad feeling about the future. Without much warning or consultation, he left WVU for C.W. Post.
"It was just more of a comfortability thing," he said. "We were going through coaching changes and I kind of panicked and made an immature decision."
Calicchio started at left tackle for the Division II school and had plenty of highs playing on Long Island, but he couldn't shake the feeling he didn't quite fit.