By Pat Taggart, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: After beating Liberty to open the 2009 season, West Virginia managed to knock off a solid East Carolina squad in week two by a 35-20 final. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers were unable to remain undefeated
when they traveled to Auburn in week three, falling to the Tigers by a 41-30
final. Still, the club responded well to that setback, stringing together four
consecutive victories to move to 6-1 and earn bowl eligibility.
Losses to South Florida and Cincinnati in two of the next three games erased
the team's hopes of winning the Big East Conference title, but back-to-back
victories over Pittsburgh and Rutgers to close out the regular season earned
WVU a bid to the Gator Bowl. Florida State was the opponent on New Year's Day,
and despite a solid effort, the result of that tilt was a 33-21 defeat.
With 16 starters back between the offense and defense, head coach Bill
Stewart, entering his third season at the helm, has a couple of questions. "Do
we have the right chemistry," asks Stewart, rhetorically. "Do we have the
right leadership?" Only time will tell.
OFFENSE: What Stewart doesn't have is a proven commodity quarterback.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen had the privilege of coaching Pat White and
Jarrett Brown, and now sophomore Geno Smith is in line to take on the starting
"He's the type of kid who can run it or throw it, but his biggest attribute is
his ability to process," says Mullen, praising the smarts of his signal
caller. In spot duty last season, Smith completed 32-of-49 passes for 309
yards. He did break a bone in his foot during the offseason but should be
ready to go when September rolls around.
There is no doubt that the first-year starter will benefit tremendously from
the presence of Noel Devine in the backfield. The electrifying tailback is
rather slight at 5-8 and 180 pounds, but he has rushed for 3,381 yards in
three seasons while averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Devine thought about making
the leap to the NFL, but his decision to return to Morgantown makes WVU a
legitimate threat to capture the Big East title.
At the receiver position, Jock Sanders returns after posting 72 catches for
688 yards last season. Sanders plays the slot and is more of a possession
receiver than a home run hitter.
WVU ranked first in the league in rushing last season and may very well repeat
DEFENSE: The strength of the West Virginia defense is in the secondary. In the
team's 3-3-5 scheme, there are five defensive backs on the field in the base
defense, and the best of the bunch is Robert Sands. An All-Big East selection
last season as a sophomore, Sands is extremely large at 6-5 and has tremendous
ball skills. He intercepted five passes a year ago and will be a star in 2010.
Brandon Hogan is a terrific corner who will start for a third consecutive
season. With 74 tackles last year, he is more than willing to get his nose
Up front, the defensive line figures to be stout. Scooter Berry is a standout
at the tackle position, and nose tackle Chris Neild is as tough as they come.
Julian Miller is a defensive end who will be expected to pressure the
quarterback consistently, and the fact that he recorded nine sacks a year ago
suggests that the junior is more than capable of doing just that.
The perceived weakness of the defense is the linebacking corps. Sure, Pat
Lazear and J.T. Thomas return as the leading tacklers from last season, but
neither showed much big-play ability in 2009.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Tyler Bitancurt is a proven commodity as the Mountaineers'
placekicker, as he connected on 13-of-15 field goal attempts in '09. The
highlight for Bitancurt was a game-winner against Pitt, and he figures to be
the difference in a couple of contests this fall. There is no doubt that the
return game needs to improve for WVU to be an elite team.
OUTLOOK: Allegations of possible misconduct within the WVU football program
have surfaced recently, but they appear to be minor and shouldn't have too
much of an impact on this year's team.
Last season, West Virginia was mediocre defensively, but the defense
figures to be much improved with so much returning talent. Devine is a sure
thing offensively, so the success of this team will rest on the arm and legs
of Smith. If the young quarterback lives up to potential, and there are many
who believe he will, the likeable coach Stewart will hoist a trophy. Still,
the competition is fierce at the top with Pittsburgh and company.