MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - When last West Virginia's football team hit the field, it wasn't pretty.For that matter, most of the last seven or eight times the Mountaineers showed what they could do, well, they didn't do much at all.But after an agonizing second half of the 2013 season in which West Virginia endured a five-game losing streak and a rather embarrassing beat-down at the hands of Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, the Mountaineers are finally able to start fresh.Today marks the beginning of spring practice for the Mountaineers. Fifteen workouts spread widely over the next six weeks will be capped by the April 20 Gold-Blue game.
And if Dana Holgorsen is right, it's a chance to begin putting last year behind the Mountaineers."I think our players are extremely motivated at this point,'' the third-year West Virginia coach said. "Obviously, ending the season the way we ended and losing a lot of star power, we have a bunch of hungry kids that want to prove themselves.''Indeed, there is more to this spring than simply putting last season in the rear-view mirror. The fact of the matter is, the Mountaineers have a lot of work to do in replacing that star power of which Holgorsen spoke.Specifically, gone are quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, all expected to be taken in the first few rounds of the April NFL draft.While replacing those three is a significant task, so too is replacing others, such as the entire middle of the offensive line and a handful of others. There's also the not-to-be-diminished mission of continuing to develop so many young players who got their feet wet a season ago."We played so many young guys last year that those guys are going to be different people this year,'' Holgorsen said. "We're excited about getting out there and spending a lot of time with these guys and seeing what's going on.''There is no question that the biggest unknown that will be addressed in the next six weeks is the competition to replace those three huge playmakers on offense. Two-year backup Paul Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress lead the group challenging for Smith's job, but don't count out true freshman Chavas Rawlins, who enrolled in January and will be a part of the quarterback competition.There are plenty of bodies at wide receiver, including junior college transfer Kevin White and true freshman Daikiel Shorts."We obviously lost a lot of production that we have to replace, which is just the nature of college football,'' Holgorsen said. "You're going to lose good players and it's going to be good for your program to see young guys like Geno, Tavon, Stedman and [center] Joey [Madsen] move onto the NFL. That's going to be positive for our program."But by no means will we panic whatsoever. We need to get guys in here and we need to coach those guys up.''But perhaps just as important as addressing the gaping holes on offense is getting to work on what was statistically - and in any other context - one of the worst defenses in all of college football.
It will be largely a new group of coaches working on that aspect, too. Keith Patterson will be in his first spring leading the defense after he was elevated to the coordinator post prior to the bowl game. Also new are secondary coaches Tony Gibson and Brian Mitchell."Defensively, Coach Patterson is continuing to get a scheme put in place. He got a head start on it heading into the bowl game,'' Holgorsen said. "Obviously we didn't get near what we wanted to get into it, but still got a lot out of this regardless of how the game ended up. We still got a lot out of that from a defensive standpoint as far as getting ahead for the spring."But we got the coaches in place and got the scheme in place and we're continuously meeting with these guys to put the scheme in place and put the philosophy in place. We're excited to see these guys improve.''Improving the special teams play will also be addressed. Joe DeForest was the defensive coordinator and safeties coach last year, but will work exclusively with special teams this season."We'll do our best this spring to develop that, but it's not just about the kicker, punter, snapper and returner,'' Holgorsen said. "It's about 50 other guys that need to learn how to take care of some technique stuff when it comes to special teams and the importance of being good in space.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.