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Athey's arrival a rush job

MCT REGIONAL NEWS

By Ed Owens

The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.

(MCT)

Jan. 05--Six weeks ago, Brian Athey was a typical high school senior. He had just guided his Eden Prairie (Minn.) High School football team to the quarterfinals of the state tournament and was looking forward to helping the Eagles' baseball team capture a second consecutive state championship. But Eden Prairie will have to chase that title without him.

Six days from now, Athey will be a full-time student at WVU and could be the Mountaineers' No. 1 quarterback when spring football practice officially opens, in March or April.

The WVU coaching staff put a rush order on Athey's delivery back in November, more than a month after freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson left the program, but well before fellow backup Barry Brunetti publicly announced his plan to transfer at the end of the fall semester. Before then, Athey had no intention of enrolling at WVU in January and was planning to graduate on schedule in the spring.

The news of starting quarterback Geno Smith's left foot surgery, scheduled for Jan. 14, only amplified the need for Athey's accelerated arrival. According to WVU head football trainer Dave Kerns, Smith will be out a minimum of eight weeks while recovering from the procedure.

Depending on Smith's recovery rate, it could mean that Athey, the only incoming quarterback who has verbally committed to WVU so far, could be the Mountaineers' top option under center when it comes to spring practice.

Coley White and Brad Starks were recruited to WVU as quarterbacks, but both players spent all of this past season playing wide receiver.

"This definitely wasn't something I was planning," Athey said. "At the beginning of the year, I had talked to my guidance counselor about 1/8enrolling early3/8 just in case something like this happened but, when I hadn't heard anything 1/8from WVU3/8, I figured it wasn't happening.

"Then coach 1/8David3/8 Lockwood and coach 1/8Jeff3/8 Mullen called me back in November and let me know that it would be nice if I could get there in January. Mullen gave me a little motivational speech to try and convince me, but I already knew I was going to do whatever I could to help the team. It didn't give me a lot of time, but I was really excited for the opportunity."

Athey struggled to catch his breath over the next six weeks, a span in which he celebrated both Thanksgiving and Christmas, graduated high school, threw an impromptu graduation party and did his best to prepare himself for college life.

"Luckily, all of my credits were lined up already," Athey said. "That was the biggest thing. Then I've been doing a lot of packing and trying to get ready. It's going to be hard leaving my family and friends six months earlier than I thought, but I'm ready for this challenge."

One of Athey's biggest challenges has already been taken care of. His primary mode of transportation had been an old minivan with more than 200,000 miles on it and, according to Athey, "absolutely no traction." For Christmas, Athey's parents gave him a blue 2009 Chevy Impala to help him make the trip to West Virginia.

"That was really, really nice," Athey said. "I have no idea how I ever would have gotten around the hills of Morgantown in that minivan."

Athey will arrive later this week in order to settle in before classes start, on Monday. But things have been moving so quickly that, as of this week, Athey still didn't know the first thing about his class schedule for the semester.

"I'm enrolled, but I'm not sure what classes I'm going to be taking," Athey said. "I want to major in business, so I'm sure I'll have a few business classes plus whatever courses freshmen have to take. I'm a little anxious to hear how heavy my workload will be."

Into the fire

If Athey is anxious about his class schedule, adding football to the mix should be enough to make his head spin.

The original plan, at least six weeks ago, was for Athey to come in and spend his first few months studying Mullen's playbook and learning behind Smith before even beginning to work on the intricacies of the offense or reading defenses. Now Smith is expected to be sidelined until at least mid-March, Mullen has been let go and Athey has yet to talk with new offensive coordinator and head coach "in waiting" Dana Holgorsen.

"I'm not sure what my schedule is going to be like now, but I'm sure it's going to be busy," Athey said. "Whether I'm No. 1 or No. 2 behind Geno 1/8this spring3/8, it doesn't matter to me. I'll do whatever is best for the team. I'm really looking forward to learning from Geno and trying to make sure that I'm prepared for next season."

Athey's only knowledge of Holgorsen's offense is what he saw this past week in the Alamo Bowl. He kept a particularly close eye on Oklahoma State quarterback Brandon Weeden in that game, and Athey liked what he saw.

"I watched the Alamo Bowl with some friends but I wasn't too social that night," Athey joked. "I was really focused on that game because I wanted to watch coach Holgorsen's offense. He's put up such good numbers and his offenses are impressive. It looks like it would be a lot of fun to be a part of."

Opening it up

Holgorsen's offense will certainly be a culture shock for Athey.

Weeden completed 25 of 41 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns in the Cowboys' 36-10 win against Arizona in the bowl game. Those numbers account for roughly one-third of Athey's passing production during his entire senior season.

Athey completed a total of 45 passes for 719 yards and eight touchdowns at Eden Prairie this past fall.

"We were a run-heavy team, so I didn't even throw the ball 100 times," Athey said. "We'd try to get people on play-action more than anything else, but it was a good season and I had a fun senior year. I'm happy to do whatever it takes to win."

Under Holgorsen, "whatever it takes" could mean that Athey's arm is about to get a workout. Not that he'd have a problem with that.

"Brian would've loved it if we threw it more," said Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant, who is the son of former Minnesota Vikings Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant. "Any quarterback would love to throw it 30-40 times a game, but the reason we don't throw a lot is because we usually get ahead by a lot early. There was only one time where we really had to try to rally by throwing the ball and Brian threw for big yards and drove us down field twice to send the game into overtime."

Athey's numbers may not jump off the page, but he does have one stat that is sure to catch the attention of any coach: Athey did not throw a single interception during his senior season while leading the Eagles to a 9-2 record and a fourth-place ranking in the state.

"I don't think I've ever had a quarterback go an entire year without an interception and I've had a lot of great quarterbacks," Grant said. "We were plus-22 in turnovers this year and a lot of that has to do with his understanding of what it takes to win. Brian has played in a lot of big games and he's no rookie to pressure. He's a confident young man, so I think he'll be fine."

Athey is counting on that confidence to help him bridge the gap between high school senior and college freshman. Whether Smith is ready to go or not, Athey will immediately be thrust into a key role for the Mountaineers, and he's looking forward to meeting the challenge head on.

"The biggest thing for me is that I can't get too high or too low. I have to stay level. I was such a big Mountaineers fan growing up," said Athey, who is the grandson of Mountaineer Sports Network football color commentator Dwight Wallace. "I always pictured myself playing here when I was little, which gets me even more pumped up to do that work I have to do. This is a great opportunity for me and I have to try and capitalize on it."

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(c) 2011, The Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.


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