Time for some answers
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It seems inarguable that as far as West Virginia is concerned there are but three real goals today when the Mountaineers open the 2013 season against William & Mary.
The first is to win the game. That's a given. It's always No. 1. Just because the opponent is an undermanned FCS program coming off a 2-9 season doesn't mean the objective can be taken lightly.
Just ask Maryland, which needed a fourth-quarter touchdown last season to beat the Tribe 7-6. Or North Carolina, which needed two TDs in the fourth quarter to rally for a 21-17 win over W&M in 2010. Or Virginia, which could have used two more at any point in 2009 and didn't get them, losing 26-14.
"They're going to come in and they're going to play with a chip on their shoulder. They're going to try to prove to everyone that they should have been recruited, that they can play at that level,'' WVU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said of today's opponent at Mountaineer Field (noon kickoff, Fox Sports 1). "So they're going to play with a purpose and it's a game of passion. We have to match that. We have a lot to prove ourselves.''
West Virginia's second objective is to end the game as healthy as it begins it. Regardless of whether this week's opener is a yawner or a nail-biter, the Mountaineers are going to need all hands on deck a week from today in Norman, Okla., when the level of opposition is ratcheted up several notches when they face the Oklahoma Sooners.
The third thing? Well, it's something Dana Holgorsen's team got a taste of last year, but certainly not to this degree. West Virginia's third-year head coach will send out onto the field today a group of players - particularly on offense and special teams - that is largely unknown. Between true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and transfers, probably more than half of those expected to contribute on those units have either never taken a college snap or never taken one for West Virginia.
Discovering how they react under pressure is perhaps the greatest unknown the Mountaineers are dealing with today.
"There are a whole lot of guys that we're going to try to evaluate that we haven't been able to evaluate yet,'' Holgorsen said. "That's not No. 1 on the list, but that's up there.''
Consider that there are two junior quarterbacks expected to play. Clint Trickett has been on campus only three months and Paul Millard has played one down in his career - a fourth-down snap at Oklahoma State which ended with him throwing a touchdown pass - when the game's outcome had not already been decided. All they're trying to do is replace the school's all-time leader in virtually every passing category, Geno Smith.
Behind those quarterbacks, the top three running backs have never worn a WVU uniform - Houston transfer Charles Sims, freshman Wendell Smallwood and junior college transfer Dreamius Smith. Of the six wide receivers listed on the depth chart, they combined for a total of just 11 catches last season - nine of them by a player, Ivan McCartney, who quit the team.
And on the offensive line there are a couple of veterans at the tackles, but the middle of the line is made up of three players who have combined for one mop-up appearance in one game.
It's all such an unknown. Performing in practice and performing in games are two far different things.
"You have to see which guys are going to respond to a game atmosphere, to 65,000 people in the stands, to national TV,'' Holgorsen said. "Some guys will raise their game, elevate their game. Some guys will probably get wide-eyed and not do what we want them to do.
"We have to identify that and there's only one way you can identify that.''
Defensively, there is plenty of experience, but even that comes with an asterisk. West Virginia's defense a year ago was perhaps the worst in the school's football history. Part of that was because a year ago the defense looked much like the offense this season - untested. There are a handful of untested defenders this season, but nothing like it was last year when a true freshman, safety Karl Joseph, wound up as the team's leading tackler.
"There aren't as many freshmen on [the defensive depth chart] as there were last year,'' Holgorsen said. "What was it, eight or 10 freshmen that we played defensively last year? Everybody wants to know why we were bad defensively last year. That's probably one pretty good sign.''
The hope, of course, is that the offense doesn't endure those same growing pains this season. There are indicators that it won't - more junior college players and transfers in new roles, as opposed to freshmen - but only time will tell.
"Nothing puts guys in position more than a game does to figure out what their mental toughness is, what their physical toughness is, being disciplined,'' Holgorsen said. "Guys that haven't jumped offsides all camp may end up flinching and jumping offsides because it's a game. A game is different.
"We try to put them in as many situations as we possibly can, but you can't simulate a game. I don't care who you're playing. So with this many new guys, you have to kind of look at them and see what their state of mind is going to be.''
Worrisome? Yes. It's one thing to have newcomers at a few spots, even key spots. It's quite another to have them at almost every spot. Even in the kicking game things are a mystery. The kicker, Josh Lambert, is a redshirt freshman. The punter is a junior college transfer, Nick O'Toole. Even the kickoff guy, junior Mike Molinari, is new to that job, having served only as the holder and occasionally as a punter. The returners will all being doing that job for the first time, too, at least at WVU.
"There's not a ton of guys that have taken a lot of college snaps,'' Holgorsen said. "Yes, that's a concern. It can be a concern to some and it could be exciting to others. I tend to go on the exciting part. I can't wait to see those guys get out there and see what they've got.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.