Coach Dana Holgorsen needs no reminder about the lack of success he’s seen on the field since ushering in West Virginia’s move to the Big 12.
Hired to make the Mountaineers a national fixture, Holgorsen brought immediate success with a Big East title and resounding Orange Bowl win over Clemson in the 2011 season. But the last two years mostly have been a disappointment and Holgorsen is hoping some changes to his defensive staff can help bring immediate results.
West Virginia is 11-14 since moving to the Big 12 in 2012. The Mountaineers must show significant improvement on both sides of the ball to bounce back from a 4-8 finish — the school’s first losing season since 2001 — that included November losses to lowly Kansas and Iowa State.
“We need to stay the course, continue to develop our talent, continue to recruit better, and then we’ll win those games,” said Holgorsen, who is entering the third year of a six-year contract that pays him at least $2.7 million in salary and bonuses. “Hopefully we can put a season together that everybody will be proud of.”
He’ll have to do that by withstanding a tough early schedule, score points with no consistent returning playmakers on offense and get more out of a defense that’s been simply porous for two straight seasons.
Athletic director Oliver Luck said last December that while he believed in the abilities of the coaching staff, he expects better results. Holgorsen is aiming for that in part by shoring up the number of players who will be ready at each position.
“The chemistry and the continuity right now is better than it’s been since I’ve been here,” Holgorsen said.
Here are 5 things to watch for from the Mountaineers in 2014:
BANKING ON TRICKETT: Holgorsen anointed Clint Trickett as starting quarterback in June. Holgorsen said Trickett, who had offseason shoulder surgery, “is light years ahead of where he was last year” after transferring from Florida State and becoming eligible to play immediately. Although he was mediocre at times in seven starts and threw just seven touchdown passes with seven interceptions, Trickett led the Mountaineers to a 30-21 win over Oklahoma State. His backups are Paul Millard, who started three games last year, and junior college transfer Skyler Howard.
CROWDED BACKFIELD: Five running backs are looking to replace departed 1,000-yard rusher Charles Sims. Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell sat out last season after rushing for 641 yards as a freshman for the Panthers in 2012. Junior Andrew Buie, who left school last fall and re-enrolled in January, led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2012. Junior Dustin Garrison, the top ball carrier in 2011, is back after two injury-plagued seasons. Dreamius Smith was the second-leading rusher behind Sims with 494 yards. Wendell Smallwood, who ran for 221 yards as a freshman, is focused on football again after witness tampering charges against him were dropped last month in a case in Delaware.
CHALLENGING START: West Virginia’s schedule is front-loaded with tough tests against Alabama on Aug. 30 in Atlanta, the Sept. 6 home opener against FCS runner-up Towson, a Sept. 13 road game against a Maryland team that beat West Virginia 37-0 last year, and the Big 12 opener at home Sept. 20 against Oklahoma.
SHORE UP THAT DEFENSE: West Virginia surrendered 33 points per game last season, ranking 99th in the Bowl Subdivision. Tony Gibson was promoted to defensive coordinator after Keith Patterson left for Arizona State and the Mountaineers hired former longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley to oversee the defensive line. West Virginia must replace six starters from the unit that allowed 455 yards per game and surrendered four second-half leads in its final six games.
UNHAPPY RETURNS: West Virginia will try to infuse some life in its return game. The Mountaineers averaged a league-low 3 yards on punt returns and 18.6 yards on kickoff returns in 2013. Freshman quarterback William Crest is among those who could get some special teams work, although for now Holgorsen is looking at wide receivers Jordan Thompson and Mario Alford for returning punts, and running back Wendell Smallwood, Alford and Thompson on kickoffs.