WVU football: Mountaineers offense starting to pick up pieces
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia's leading rusher in Saturday's Gold-Blue Game was a fraction of himself in 2012 as Dustin Garrison recovered from offseason surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Two other running backs had seven carries, but this time last year Dreamius Smith was in junior college and Wendell Smallwood was a junior in high school.
Jordan Thompson was the game's leading receiver, but he was unproductive as a freshman, so much so that his coaches did not want to grant him credit after turning six catches into 123 yards and three touchdowns in the final event of spring football.
"I don't want to talk about Jordan," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "If I talk about him, he's going to go off thinking he's got it all figured out, like he always does."
Junior college newcomer Kevin White was the receiver with a dazzling long run for a touchdown after a short reception. Two other receivers had four receptions, but Connor Arlia is just now on scholarship after two years as a walk-on while Dakiel Shorts could be getting ready for his senior prom.
Quarterback Paul Millard played the game's first three series. He was the backup last season who has thrown 34 passes in two seasons. Ford Childress, even with Millard in the quarterback derby, redshirted as a freshman last season.
This is life for WVU as it pieces together an offense that is looking to replace running back Shawne Alston, receivers Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods and quarterback Geno Smith. Many of the offense's key contributors in a game the defense won 41-33 are either brand new or brandishing much larger roles in 2013.
"We'll have guys that can make plays," Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "I'm very confident in that. Each and every year we've lost great players, the initial reaction is, 'How are we going to score points?' Other guys step up. We have guys who are going to step up a whole bunch."
The reality is some of those guys were at the game Saturday, but didn't play. Running back Andrew Buie missed the game with an injury. Clint Trickett, a quarterback transferring from Florida State, watched the game on an official visit and would be eligible for the fall should he pick WVU.
Even without Buie, who led the team in rushing last season, the Mountaineers are in "the best shape we've been in since I've been here" at running back, Holgorsen said. Whether Trickett joins or not, Millard has two seasons in Holgorsen's system and Childress has one. Both would benefit from an infusion of talent, which would seem to be on the way.
High school receiver Sheldon Gibson and junior college receiver Ronald Carswell were on the sidelines for the game. High school senior Jacky Marcellus and junior college receiver Mario Alford will arrive in the summer.
"We'll have a whole bunch of receivers competing their butts off all summer, all camp and we'll have guys step up and make plays and those guys may not be here yet," Holgorsen said. "We have four guys coming in who, in my opinion, are pretty good playmakers.
"When we add guys to the mix, there's going to be a whole bunch of competition. Some guys embrace competition and sometimes it takes a bunch of competition for somebody to emerge."
The defense may have succeeded because of some timing and experience problems from the quarterbacks. There was further help from how the receivers didn't stretch the field vertically with outside receivers or from side to side with the inside receivers. Yet that defense is replacing and searching for playmakers, too.
WVU only had 23 sacks last season and 101/2 belonged to graduated linebackers Terence Garvin and Josh Francis.
"If the pressure didn't come from Josh or Terence, we didn't get pressure," new defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. "The nature of our scheme now is making us more well-rounded."
Ten Mountaineers combined for 11 tackles for a loss Saturday. Five players combined for six sacks, which, for what it's worth, is more than WVU had in any game last season. Of the five players, only starting nose guard Shaq Rowell played much, if at all, in 2012, and Rowell didn't have a sack last season.
"What guy can make a big tackle?" Patterson said. "What guy can impact the quarterback? It might not even be sacking the quarterback. It might just be getting in the quarterback's face and forcing a throw to come up short or making him throw the ball away. Those things don't show up. I think so far through the spring it's someone different every day. That's what I love about the defense. It's not just one guy."
Just like on offense, the defense figures to get help from players who didn't play Saturday. Linebacker Isaiah Bruce, who was second on the team in tackles last season, sat out injured. Patterson said a handful of freshmen could earn a spot on the line, at linebacker or at safety, but that junior college transfers d'Vante Henry, Brandon Golson and Dontrill Heyman will be asked to help as outside pass rushers.
"Hopefully, you're not relying on too many freshmen to make an impact, but the junior college transfers we brought in have a chance to come in and make a tremendous impact," Patterson said. "With their size and their length at the position, we need them on the edge of the defense to be a tremendous asset for us."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.