Changes give WVU spring new feel

This time a year ago, it was hard to go anywhere in Morgantown, W.Va., without feeling the buzz surrounding Mountaineers football.

A Big East title and an Orange Bowl romp weren't far in the rearview mirror, and a bright first year in the new Big 12 lay just a few months ahead.

A five-game losing streak derailed that first season, and the NFL draft is taking the top three talents -- quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey -- from that West Virginia team. The 2013 edition is left without a marquee star -- and with few folks picking the Mountaineers to finish in the top half of the Big 12.

"It’s made things easier from a coaching perspective. That’s for certain. Last year, we did our best to put the guys on high alert; be guarded as to what you’re listening to in the media," coach Dana Holgorsen said.

This year, don't put it past Holgorsen to post a few news clipping (and maybe the Big 12 preseason poll) around the facilities in Morgantown.

"There’s no expectations whatsoever. We’re coming off a disappointing bowl loss. Offensively is the unit that has no experience coming back," Holgorsen said. "We have two guys that started at offensive tackle and that’s it for the entire offense. Defense has all the experience. We played so many young guys last year. All our leaders are on defense."

That's the same defense that finished dead last in the Big 12 in scoring defense a year ago, surrendering 38.1 points a game and more than 43 per game in conference play. Safeties Karl Joseph and Darwin Cook backstop a maligned unit looking for a new start in 2013; defensive end Will Clarke and linebacker Isaiah Bruce could provide a bit of playmaking ability and leadership, too.

"It’s night and day from where it was last year, but from a coaching perspective, it’s a little bit easier to get their attention," Holgorsen said.

Smith was the team's unquestioned leader last season, but this time around, it'll be into fall before West Virginia settles on a starting quarterback in a race between Paul Millard and Ford Childress that Holgorsen called "wide open." Both are splitting snaps equally with the first team for now.

"Everybody likes to be patted on the back, so they’re probably missing the fact that they get patted on the back all the time, but welcome to the Big 12," Holgorsen said. "They played eight opponents that went to bowls in the Big 12. It’s the competitive situation. Everybody in the Big 12 is going to be tough."

WVU found that out last season and fell well short of a chance to win a league title in its first go-around with a Big 12 schedule that was far more difficult than what WVU encountered in the Big East. Finishing in the top half of the Big 12 seems like a tall task, but might be a reasonable goal in a season where reaching a bowl game is anything but guaranteed.

"I think we’ve got a bunch of guys who like to play football and a lot of guys motivated to get better and excited about where we’re at from a conference standpoint, so we’ve kind of got their attention," Holgorsen said. "We’ve had a great 14 weeks since the bowl game and we expect to get a lot better in the next 14 weeks before we get into camp."