OVERVIEW: Even before plans were in the works to bring Dana Holgorsen to Morgantown, the Mountaineers were moving toward a more balanced offense. In part, that was because of the departure of Pat White; it also was because of the passing ability of Jarrett Brown and now Geno Smith. For the first time since 2000, Don Nehlen's final season, West Virginia last season passed for more than 200 yards per game (213.0 ypg). Look for those numbers to increase by a wide margin this fall. Holgorsen has been a coordinator for four seasons, at Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech, and his offenses have averaged 412 passing yards per game.
AN INSIDE LOOK
THE LINGERING QUESTION: What is the ceiling for the new offense? New coach Dana Holgorsen has overseen a prolific offense every where he has been. The personnel, especially the starting quarterback, seems suited to the new system. The overriding question, then, is how quickly West Virginia starts to look like former Holgorsen offenses at Oklahoma State, Houston and Texas Tech.
THE BEST-CASE SCENARIO: The Mountaineers put the offseason controversies behind them, and the existing personnel adapt seamlessly to the new offense. West Virginia lights up the scoreboard like Rich Rodriguez's teams did, only this time with the pass. Despite turnover on his side of the ball, coordinator Jeff Casteel churns out a stingy defense once again, and West Virginia cruises to a Big East title and at least 10 wins.
THE WORST-CASE SCENARIO: West Virginia faces an injury at the one place it absolutely cannot afford an injury: quarterback. The Mountaineers lose Geno Smith for a sizable chunk of the season, leaving a freshman to run the offense. That puts too much pressure on a rebuilt defense and the Mountaineers have to fight just to become bowl-eligible.
STAT TO KEEP AN EYE ON: West Virginia was on the wrong side of the turnover margin ledger in each of the past two seasons (minus-2 in 2009, minus-5 in 2010). Every season from 2002-08, the Mountaineers were on the plus side. The problem last season was an eye-popping amount of fumbles. West Virginia and Georgia Tech lost more fumbles than any other team in the country at 20 apiece. Tech, though, runs the triple option, which can lead to fumbles. WVU doesn't have that excuse.
BACKFIELD: Holgorsen lucked out by inheriting Smith. In his first season as a starter, Smith was the Big East's most efficient passers. He also was one of the best nationally at avoiding turnovers. Of the 48 quarterbacks who attempted at least 350 passes last season, only Boise State's Kellen Moore, Southern Miss' Austin Davis and Smith threw fewer than eight interceptions (Smith threw seven). A pass-oriented offense should suit Smith just fine. He was a prolific passer as a senior at Miramar (Fla.) High and fits this offense better than what WVU had been running. West Virginia doesn't want Smith to run much anyway. The transfer of Barry Brunetti to Ole Miss left the Mountaineers with true freshmen Paul Millard and Brian Athey, who both enrolled in spring, as backups. As good as Smith was at avoiding interceptions, he couldn't say the same for fumbles. He lost seven last season. Running back has been a productive position for West Virginia, but the Mountaineers enter the season not certain who will run the ball. Vernard Roberts (see "Impact Newcomer" below) was the surprise of the spring, but he'll have company with Trey Johnson and incoming freshman Andrew Buie. Ryan Clarke and Shawne Alston are bigger backs with experience who would be ideal in short-yardage situations.
RECEIVERS: This is where West Virginia's offense could be interesting. Three of the top four receivers are back, including junior Tavon Austin. He could be headed for a career year after catching 58 passes for 787 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Smith showed good chemistry with Stedman Bailey (317 yards, four touchdowns) last season, for good reason: They were high school teammates. So was sophomore Ivan McCartney, a Rivals100 prospect in 2010. Former TE Tyler Urban is the odd man out in this system, but he's trying to remake himself into a 6-foot-5, 251-pound inside receiver.
LINE: In the past few seasons (since line coach Rick Trickett left for Florida State), this unit has slipped. The line will be further tested with an injury to starting G Josh Jenkins that will force him to miss the season. LT Don Barclay and C Joe Madsen are returning starters, and returning RT Jeff Braun will slide to Jenkins' left guard spot. That opens the door for redshirt freshman Quinton Spain, a four-star prospect out of high school, to take over at right tackle.
OVERVIEW: Jeff Casteel may be one of the nation's most underrated coordinators. West Virginia fielded one of the best defenses in the nation last season, ranking in the top three in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and sacks. No opponents scored more than 23 points on the Mountaineers, and no Big East opponent scored more than 20. West Virginia's defense will continue to use what coaches call a 3-3-5 stack, but Casteel will have some holes to fill with only four returning starters.
LINE: West Virginia loses two players who anchored the defense for three seasons with the departures of Scooter Berry and Chris Neild. Two key playmakers are back, but Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller may learn how much Berry and Neild made their lives easier. Miller (nine sacks) will move from end to tackle to give Irvin a chance to play end full-time. Irvin was as productive as any specialist in the country, and his 14 sacks are the most for any returning player. But can he hold up against the run as a full-time player? The Mountaineers are looking for a space-eater in the middle. The leader could be former walk-on Josh Taylor, who has seen ample time as a reserve the past two seasons.
LINEBACKERS: This is the biggest concern on the defense, especially after the recent dismissal of Branko Busick, who was charged with armed robbery. Returning starter Najee Goode emerged last season and had 47 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss. He can play all three linebacker positions, but he primarily will be in the middle. At one outside linebacker spot, junior college All-America Josh Francis has the speed to be a difference-maker, but he's still adjusting to the scheme. Sophomore Doug Rigg, a former special-teamer, is the projected starter at the other outside linebacker spot.
SECONDARY: CB Keith Tandy is one of the top returning defensive players in the Big East after recording six interceptions, 11 pass breakups and 57 tackles last season. SS Terence Garvin also returns after leading the Mountaineers with 76 tackles. FS Eain Smith has impressed in practice the past few seasons (though this spring, which he missed with injury), but Robert Sands had blocked his bid for serious playing time. Sands is gone now and big things are expected from Smith, like Sands a native of south Florida. Pat Miller is the leading candidate to replace CB Brandon Hogan. Miller started two games when Hogan was suspended last season. The Mountaineers have high hopes for CB Brodrick Jenkins as well.
West Virginia enters the fall with questions in the kicking game. Tyler Bitancurt had a standout freshman season but struggled as a sophomore, especially from longer range (just 2-of-7 from at least 40 yards). Bitancurt has a knack for big kicks in rivalry games. He kicked a game-winner against Pittsburgh in 2009 as time expired and another last season to beat Marshall in overtime. Corey Smith will be the new punter after serving as a kickoff specialist last season. Jock Sanders and Hogan were the top return men last season, but the Mountaineers should be to replace the production of both with the speed they have on the roster. The coverage units were solid last season.
THE RECRUITING SIDE
Average national ranking past five years: 33rd
Buzz: Mountaineers fans are used to seeing their team finish on top of the Big East in recruiting, so a No. 3 finish in the league in 2011 was a disappointment. WVU still did well in Florida and Maryland, landing RB Andrew Buie and G Marquis Lucas from the Sunshine State and CB Vance Roberts and his twin, RB Vernard Roberts, from D.C. Getting DB Terrell Chestnut from Pennsylvania late in the game was a big deal, as well. Florida has been good to West Virginia so far in the 2012 cycle, and the Mountaineers are in the hunt for two of the top players in Maryland in ATHs Cyrus Jones and Deontay McManus. - MIKE FARRELL
True freshman Vernard Roberts wasn't as heralded as his twin, Vance, a cornerback, in recruiting, but Vernard seems likely to make the quicker impact. Vance was four-star cornerback out of Washington (D.C.) Dunbar, while Vernard was a three-star running back. Vernard Roberts emerged during the spring as the leading "A-Back" (it's the way the tailback is designated in Holgorsen's offense). At 5 feet 9 and 184 pounds, Roberts is close in size to the backs Holgorsen has had in the past.
West Virginia has had a nice recent run against SEC teams, particularly in Morgantown. That will be put to the test when national championship contender LSU visits Sept. 24. The Mountaineers will face former Connecticut coach Randy Edsall in a road trip to Maryland on Sept. 17 for another difficult non-conference game. If West Virginia is going to win the Big East, it will need to be in top gear by late October. The Mountaineers will play three of four games on the road (at Syracuse, at Rutgers, vs. Louisville, at Cincinnati) between Oct. 21 and Nov. 12.
Between the ugly departure of coach Bill Stewart and being placed on NCAA probation, West Virginia had a difficult offseason. Still, the Mountaineers should be in good shape on the field. The Holgorsen-Stewart dynamic won't be an issue with Holgorsen taking over a year ahead of schedule, and this is perhaps the most talented roster in the Big East. With Holgorsen leading the offense and Casteel leading the defense, it also could be the best-coached team in the league. If the pieces can come together, West Virginia will win the league.
For more on West Virginia now and throughout the season, check out WVSports.com