July 24, 2008

Coach: Bill Stewart (1-0 in first full season; 8-25 overall in three seasons). | Staff
In 2007: 11-2 overall, 5-2 in the Big East (tied for first in league). | Highlights
Returning starters: Offense—7. Defense—4. Special teams—1 | Depth Chart
Key losses: Offense—WR Darius Reynaud, FB Owen Schmitt, TB Steve Slaton. Defense—E Johnny Dingle, NT Keilen Dykes, CB Antonio Lewis, LB Marc Magro, FS Ryan Mundy, SS Eric Wicks, CB Larry Williams.
Final 2007 Rivals.com ranking: 4th. | Complete Final 2007 Rankings
2008 Breakdown: Offense | Defense | Special teams | Coaching | Schedule | Depth Chart

OFFENSE

THE SCHEME: Coach Rich Rodriguez is gone, but his power-spread option remains alive and well in Morgantown. New coordinator Jeff Mullen is putting his stamp on things. He has tweaked the system, installing more motion and promising to amp up the passing. Expect more deep passes down the middle in an effort to bring more balance to what already is a devastatingly good offense.

STAR POWER: Senior quarterback Pat White is a wondrous wizard who is capable of scoring anytime he carries the ball. He carried 197 times last season for 1,395 yards (that's 6.8 yards per tote!) with 14 TDs, and he needs just 724 yards to become the top rushing quarterback in NCAA history. But he left two games (USF, Pitt) early with injury, and WVU - not so coincidentally - lost both. The Mountaineers can't afford for White to get hurt, which is why Stewart has vowed to have White pass more often. With the passing game more of an emphasis, don't be shocked if White – who is an underrated thrower – enjoys the first 2,000-yard passing season of his career.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Watch out for redshirt freshman wide receiver Bradley Starks. The former third-string quarterback now is a first-string receiver. This team needs some big-play receivers to stretch the field and keep defenses honest. Starks has great speed and has been a quick study when it comes to running routes and catching the ball.

IT'S HIS TIME: Running back Steve Slaton left early for the NFL, but few in Morgantown are fretting. That's because Slaton's departure has created more touches for sophomore running back Noel Devine. In limited duty last season as a true freshman, Devine averaged 8.6 yards per carry en route to running for 627 yards on 73 carries. The diminutive dynamo (5-8/173) is a true game-changer and ankle-breaker who is outstanding in the open field. But depth at tailback is dicey, so it's vital the staff not overwork Devine.

STRONGEST AREA: This will be one of the nation's top lines. The top eight players return from a unit that helped the Mountaineers rank No. 3 in the nation in rushing and No. 9 in scoring. The unit also yielded just 13 sacks, the fifth fewest in I-A. The unquestioned star is left tackle Ryan Stanchek, the epitome of the quick, mobile lineman WVU has become known for. He teams on the left side with guard Greg Isdaner to form a dynamic duo. Both will contend for All-America accolades. The spot with the most competition is right tackle, where Stephen Maw is battling Selvish Capers.

BIGGEST PROBLEM: With Stewart committed to throwing more, some viable targets need to emerge. Last year's top receiver, Darius Reynaud, is gone. Staffers like the potential of Dorrell Jalloh, who had 24 catches in 2007. And at 6-8, Wes Lyons is a mismatch waiting to happen and a threat in the red zone. Also keep an eye on Tito Gonzales, a speedster who showed home-run ability in the Fiesta Bowl with a 79-yard TD catch. Don't forget about Starks. The tight end spot was neglected and ignored under Rodriguez. No more. Redshirt freshman Will Johnson converted to tight end from receiver and is the school's most promising prospect at the position since Anthony Becht. Johnson also will double as a fullback, where there's a massive void with Owen Schmitt gone. Not only was Schmitt a devastating blocker, he also was a good receiver, effective with the odd carry and a fan favorite.

OVERVIEW: The pieces are in place for this again to be one of the nation's most productive offenses. White and Devine are ultra-explosive weapons, and a standout line is in place to pave the way. It's vital the passing game develops so opponents can't stuff the box with an extra defender. And it goes without saying that White must remain healthy. Without him, West Virginia becomes ordinary.

33-5

That's West Virginia's record from 2005-07. The only school that has a better mark over that span is USC (34-5).
GRADE: A

DEFENSE

THE SCHEME: Coordinator Jeff Casteel didn't follow Rodriguez to Michigan, which means his 3-3-5 stack defense remains the norm. But Casteel has work to do with seven starters gone. Casteel is a master when it comes to scheming and tweaking his funky formation, showing an array of blitz packages that keep offense off-guard.

STAR POWER: Take your pick between linebackers Reed Williams and Mortty Ivy. Neither is spectacular, but both are sound, fundamental players who rarely are out of place. Their presence and production is vital since the linebacking corps is the anchor and heart of WVU's defense. Williams is an anchor in the middle who can stand his ground and stuff the run, while Ivy works on the edge taking on tight ends and has proved adept in coverage.

IMPACT NEWCOMER: Staffers are excited about redshirt freshman end Julian Miller. He flashed great ability as an edge rusher in the spring. At 6-5 and 220 pounds, he's a rangy athlete and could help a unit looking for pass rushers. Once he adds bulk, Miller will be a complete end capable of stuffing the run.

IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore outside linebacker J.T. Thomas is primed to break out in 2008. He was all over the field late last season, making plays sideline to sideline. That quickness makes Thomas effective playing in space and dropping into coverage. He picked up where he left off in the spring, exciting coaches with his potential as a playmaker.

STRONGEST AREA: The linebacking corps has teeth with the return of starters Williams (107 tackles) and Ivy (89). The duo finished 1-2 on the team in tackles last season. Don't be shocked if the speedy Ivy, who is moving from the weakside to the strongside, emerges as an All-Big East player. Thomas is slated to start at weakside 'backer. But this unit will have a difficult time enjoying another tackle-filled season if the new starters replacing end Johnny Dingle and tackle Keilen Dykes flop at the point of attack.

BIGGEST PROBLEM: The secondary remains a work in progress, with four of five starters gone. And it didn't help when safety Charles Pugh was booted from the team. The one sure thing is bandit safety Quinton Andrews. He has developed into one of the Big East's most feared hitters but must stay motivated and focused. The rest of the secondary needs to develop. It's especially critical for corners Ellis Lankster and Kent Richardson to adapt quickly to starting roles.

OVERVIEW: This unit lacks depth across the board, so staying healthy is imperative. The front six looks salty, especially the linebackers. The key will be developing a cohesive and solid secondary. But it may be even more important for two new starters along the line to emerge alongside rising star Scooter Berry. The big guys have to stop the run and get some pressure.

GRADE: C

SPECIAL TEAMS

Pat McAfee punts and kicks, and is good at both. Last season, McAfee was 13 of 19 on field-goal attempts and averaged 42.7 yards per punt. Just 21 of his 46 punts were returned – and those went for an average of just 5.3 yards. WVU has no shortage of fleet, capable options in the return game. Devine showed his skills on kickoffs last season, averaging 23.3 yards, but he may be held back to preserve his juice for offense. Keep an eye on Jock Sanders, a burner who could emerge on returns.

GRADE: A

COACHING

Go ahead, call Bill Stewart the accidental coach. Mock his failed three-year run as VMI's coach from 1994-96. He doesn't care. Stewart was in the right place at the right time, serving as interim coach in the Fiesta Bowl and promptly guiding the Mountaineers to a stunning victory over Oklahoma. It was enough to get him the job on a full-time basis. Many of Rodriguez's former assistants followed him to Michigan, forcing Stewart to retool the staff. On offense, he hired Jeff Mullen from Wake Forest to coordinate. Ace recruiter Doc Holliday was brought on board from Florida as assistant head coach/tight ends/fullbacks. He previously coached at WVU for 20 years under Don Nehlen. Former Georgia tight ends coach Dave Johnson, who played for Nehlen in Morgantown, is WVU's third offensive line coach in three years. Up-and-coming Chris Beatty came from Northern Illinois as running backs coach. Lonnie Galloway was hired from Appalachian State to coach receivers. The defensive staff added former Kentucky assistant David Lockwood, a WVU alum who coached under Nehlen in 2000, as cornerbacks coach. Lockwood was defensive coordinator for two years (2005-06) at Minnesota. Former Marshall defensive coordinator Steve Dunlap was tabbed as assistant head coach/safeties coach. He spent almost 20 years at WVU under Nehlen and also has been a coordinator at Syracuse and North Carolina State. The lone holdovers along with Stewart are Casteel, who was Rivals' defensive coordinator of the year in 2007, and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich, who has been at WVU for more than 30 years.

GRADE: B

DATE OPPONENT
Aug. 30 Villanova
Sept. 6 at East Carolina
Sept. 18 at Colorado
Sept. 27 Marshall
Oct. 4 Rutgers
Oct. 11 Syracuse
Oct. 23 Auburn
Nov. 1 at Connecticut
Nov. 8 Cincinnati
Nov. 22 at Louisville
Nov. 28 at Pittsburgh
Dec. 6 vs. USF

SCHEDULE

Any march to greatness won't be easy, beginning with consecutive trips in September to East Carolina and Colorado. It's vital the Mountaineers make hay during a four-game home stretch from Sept. 27 to Oct. 23. Splitting those games could be daunting, considering two of the foes are Rutgers and Auburn. But WVU has beaten the Scarlet Knights 13 times in a row, and has whipped an SEC foe in each of the past three seasons. It all could come down to the last two games. The "Backyard Brawl" at Pitt could be a de facto Big East championship game, with West Virginia aching to pay back the Panthers for costing them a shot at the BCS title game last season. But West Virginia needs to have something left in its tank for a season-ending visit from USF, which has stymied and stuffed WVU each of the past two seasons.

OUTLOOK

The messy divorce from Rodriguez finally is settled. West Virginia lost a great coach but will get its $4 million buyout. Fans also may get to gloat a bit because the Mountaineers have legit national title hopes. Michigan? It looks like a long year for Rich Rod. Stewart takes over a program that has gone to five consecutive January bowls and finished in the top 10 in each of those seasons. And the 41 victories over the past four seasons is the best run in school history. Bottom line: Things are rolling for a program that is gunning for its fifth Big East crown in six seasons, and Stewart doesn't want to mess them up. If the defense can play a little better than average, the Mountaineers have more than enough offense to advance to the BCS title game they came so close to reaching last season before that crushing home loss to Pitt in the regular-season finale.

OFFENSE
QB Pat White *, 6-2/185, Sr.
Jarrett Brown, 6-4/220, Jr.
RB Noel Devine, 5-8/170, Soph.
Jock Sanders, 5-8/185, Soph.
FB Will Johnson, 6-2/217, Soph.
Thor Merrow, 6-1/240, Jr.
WR Dorrell Jalloh *, 6-0/195, Sr.
Wes Lyons, 6-8/223, Jr.
WR Bradley Starks, 6-3/182, R-Fr.
Tito Gonzales *, 6-2/210, Sr.
WR Alric Arnett, 6-2/195, Jr.
Carmen Connolly, 6-1/185, Soph.
LT Ryan Stanchek *, 6-4/300, Sr.
Don Barclay, 6-4/285, R-Fr.
LG Greg Isdaner *, 6-4/315, Jr.
Don Barclay, 6-4/285, R-Fr.
C Mike Dent *, 6-4/285, Sr.
Eric Jobe, 6-4/300, Soph.
RG Jake Figner *, 6-5/305, Sr.
Stephen Maw, 6-6/300, Sr.
RT Selvish Capers, 6-6/285, Jr.
Stephen Maw, 6-6/300, Sr.
K Pat McAfee *, 6-1/200, Sr.
KR Noel Devine, 5-8/170, Soph.
(NOTE: *--denotes returning starter; %--denotes returning starter who has changed positions.)

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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