Plenty of holes to fill
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - In Dana Holgorsen's first two seasons as West Virginia's football coach, the questions facing him as he opened camp were different than they are today as he begins his third.
In 2011, those questions revolved around style, more so than substance. He had inherited a fairly veteran team that had enjoyed some success, having won nine games for three straight years and 11 in each of the three years before that. How would that group handle a drastically different offensive system?
In 2012, veterans again were all around, particularly on offense. Even on defense there was some experience, but again the question of style dominated with a rebuilt coaching staff on that side.
In 2013? Well, style is on the back burner. For the first time in his tenure, the predominant question Holgorsen faces is not one of how the team will play, but who will play.
"Starters,'' Holgorsen said when asked about his priorities for the 29 practices that lead up to the opening game on Aug. 31 against William & Mary. "You have to practice and see where you're at before you can name starters, and I'm not prepared to name any starters right now.''
Indeed, on both sides of the ball - three sides, really, including the kicking game - jobs are as wide open as in any West Virginia camp in recent memory. When Holgorsen's third squad hits the practice field for the first time late this afternoon, almost every job from quarterback to punter, from running back to center, seems wide open.
At quarterback, the Mountaineers are probably as unsettled as at any time since 2005, when Adam Bednarik was trying to hold off a freshman named Pat White. White eventually won the job midway through that season and was the unquestioned starter the next three years. Jarrett Brown inherited it the following season without much competition, as did Geno Smith the year after that.
Even for Holgorsen, the notion of having to select a starter is rather nostalgic. Not since 2008, when he was the offensive coordinator at Houston and eventually picked Case Keenum for the job there, has he gone into a season without a quarterback who appeared to stand heads above the competition.
This year he has junior Paul Millard, redshirt freshman Ford Childress and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett.
It should be, in a word, interesting.
"As soon as one of them separates himself from the others, the sooner the better,'' Holgorsen said. "That may take a day. It may take 21/2 weeks.
"But I like where we're at with it and I look forward to getting there and being able to coach them. I'm not going to put a timetable on it. When one of those guys steps up, we're going to name the starter and move forward with reps.''
If the quarterback was the only unknown in the equation, it would be different. But that's not the case. In fact, consider that every ball-handling job on the offense is up for grabs, from the center who snaps the ball to the unknown quarterback, to the running back he hands it to and the receivers who catch his passes.
There is a chance that every one of the top players at those positions will have never touched the ball as a Mountaineer, even in practice, prior to today's start of camp.
At center, it could be junior college transfer Stone Underwood, expected to fight converted tackle Pat Eger for the job. Trickett could take the snaps and hand to Houston transfer Charles Sims, who has joined Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood in the deepest backfield the team has had in years. The passes could go to junior college receiver Ronald Carswell or freshman Shelton Gibson, among a deep list of other candidates.
Underwood, Trickett, Sims, Carswell and Gibson have yet to as much as walk onto the field for an official practice as Mountaineers.
"It will be interesting, won't it?'' Holgorsen said. "Believe me, I'm as anxious to see what happens as everybody else.''
The questions on defense are just as compelling. After fielding what was arguably the worst defense in school history in 2012, there is a new coordinator - Keith Patterson - and battles at virtually every position. The influx of unknown talent there is not as dramatic as on offense and there are plenty of returning starters, but given the performance a year ago no jobs can be considered safe.
All of that has combined to significantly lower expectations for the Mountaineers. They were chosen eighth out of 10 teams in the Big 12 in the league's preseason media poll.
While Holgorsen understands that - he's alluded to "no expectations whatsoever'' himself - he's also anxious to begin work to change that.
"It's impossible,'' he said when asked how to gauge what sort of team he might wind up with after August camp. "Since when do I care about preseason polls? Do we have a chance to win the Big 12? Absolutely. The sixth-place team [in the preseason poll, Kansas State] won it last year.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.