Next up in our fall camp previews, the Big 12 sophomores from out east.
Schedule: West Virginia's players reported to camp on Wednesday, and practice begins today in advance of the Mountaineers' season opener at home against William and Mary.
Setting the scene: Dana Holgorsen likes to say this season is a polar opposite of last year, and he's right. There's no preseason hype swirling around the Mountaineers, who began last season just outside the top 10 and rose to the top five with a 5-0 start before suffering a five-game losing streak. All of WVU's experience is on the defensive end, while there are lots of questions about who'll be doing what and how often at the offensive skill positions. Even with that defensive experience, new playcaller Keith Patterson has his work cut out for him after the Mountaineers finished dead last in the Big 12 in scoring defense a year ago, giving up over 38 points a game.
All eyes on: Has to be the quarterbacks here. Paul Millard and Ford Childress battled to a stalemate in the spring, though there are indications that the elder Millard has an edge on the younger, more promising Childress. Then Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, a Morgantown, W. Va., native, crashed the scene and spiced up the race in fall camp. WVU coaches didn't guarantee him anything, but his willingness to come after a spring visit and the coaches' willingness to have him definitely indicates he'll have a shot to win the job. Holgorsen wants to name a starter sooner than later, but sorting this spot out won't be easy.
Key battle: The running backs will be set, but WVU has another logjam at receiver trying to replace Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Developing a rapport with the quarterbacks this fall will be a huge task, but K.J. Myers, Connor Arlia and Kevin White emerged from the spring with starting spots. Jordan Thompson figures to be a factor, and if incoming recruit Mario Alford gets eligible, he may get a chance to contribute as well. Dante Campbell injured his shoulder during the spring, but he might crash the party, too. It's anyone's guess as to who leads this team in receiving next season, but fall camp may go a long way in deciding who logs a 1,000-yard season in an offense with lots of catches up for grabs.
On the mend: Dustin Garrison. Garrison returned last season from a knee injury suffered in Orange Bowl practices at the end of the 2011 season, but he wasn't the back who won the Mountaineers' starting job as a freshman midway through the season. Now, he's got a tough battle in fall camp to win carries. Charles Sims is an experienced, top-level player who transferred in from Houston, but last year's leading rusher, Andrew Buie, is still around and juco transfer Dreamius Smith will be gunning for playing time, too.
Outlook: West Virginia was picked second in the Big 12 a year ago, but after a disappointing 7-6 debut and the NFL sapping its three best players, the Mountaineers were picked eighth in the Big 12 this time around. There's plenty of room for upward mobility in a league devoid of elite teams but littered with quality squads, though.
Breaking out: WVU's defense was a disaster a year ago, but if we see improvement this time around, you can probably credit it to a pair of maturing defensive sophomore stars. Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph were major bright spots a year ago, but their efforts went mostly unnoticed in the weekly parade of points given up from the Mountaineers. Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts is out and Joe DeForest was stripped of playcalling duties, but WVU has the athleticism and talent to field a serviceable defense. The big question is how the Mountaineers adjust to another year of offenses they're simply not used to competing against on a weekly basis.
Quotable: Dana Holgorsen, on replacing Geno Smith. "You're going to lose good players in college football. It happens every single year. Geno is going to be a great pro. We don't try to compare him to anybody on our staff or any of that, but we're in the same situation as, I think, seven or eight other Big 12 schools right now."