West Virginia opens practice on Wednesday, and I had a chance to catch up with head coach Bill Stewart on the eve of spring drills. Here's Part I of our conversation. (Note: Stewart offered a thorough, lengthy overview at the start of my interview, so I'm going to divide that up by topic rather than make you wade through several unbroken paragraphs).
You obviously had some great leaders on last year's team. How do you see this year's team replacing that?
Bill Stewart: We've lost seven guys on our defensive side of the ball to graduation and four of those guys went to the NFL combine. That tells you not only the kind of players we had, that tells you about the leadership we had on the 2010 football squad.
This year's team, I see a guy now like Keith Tandy; we're counting on big, big things from Keith. We've got some other young corners in Patrick Miller and Brodrick Jenkins, who have played, so that's kind of exciting. We've got some underclassmen to jump in the mix as well. I'm anxious to see Ishmael Banks, and Brantwon Bowser is ready to go and he has a chance to step up and make plays. We lost some players at safety, and certainly who I feel was the best corner in the league in Brandon Hogan. But I really feel good about our corners. With the inside guys, the spur, free safety and the bandit, we have Terence Garvin back, who gave us great play last year, and I'm looking for a big year out of him. Eain Smith is back, and he had a really good last couple of years. Then it's time for guys like Travis Bell and Mike Dorsey and Darwin Cook, Wes Tonkery, see these guys step up and make plays. That's going to be a fun thing to watch.
[On linebackers]: We lost three great linebackers; everybody knows that. We have Najee Goode back, and he's given us great leadership, as Casey Vance has done. A newcomer coming into the fold is Josh Francis. Man, he's real fast, he's explosive. He's going to be a real force, I think, in there at linebacker. We have Branko Busic, and Doug Rigg is a rising superstar, I really believe that.
[On the defensive line]: We lost Scooter Berry and what I think was the best nose guard in the league in Chris Neild. But we still have Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin, the great sack master. And now we have some young guys like Will Clarke, Jorge Wright, Josh Taylor and J.B. Lageman in there at nose guard. So there are some guys in ready to step up and make plays. Now it's their turn.
[On wide receivers/running backs]: Brad Starks can be as good as there is in this league. Stedman Bailey, what a player he was, and then Tavon Austin, J.D. Woods and Ivan McCartney. So we've got five or six top quality receivers. I'm really anxious to see how they do in this new offense. And then you take our new tight/end fullback type in Tyler Urban, who I think is going to be as good a big back as there is. And then you take Ryan Clarke, Matt Lindamood, Shawne Alston ... these guys have all played and they've done well.
[On the offensive line]: I'm worried about our offensive line, simply because Don Barclay and Jeff Braun, our two starting tackles, are out with shoulder injuries. They're healing up fine. That just makes way for the young guys. Now we'll see what Quinton Spain, the big redshirt freshman, can do with a chance to come into his own. Some other tackles like Nick Kindler and Pat Eger will get a lot of snaps this spring. And I'm really excited about our inside guys. Our center, Joey Madsen, is a great leader, he's the heart of the offensive line. Josh Jenkins has started a bunch of games at left guard. And then we have Cole Bowers, who's probably the most talented lineman we have, he just hasn't played that much. I'm really excited to see those inside guys.
I'm really looking forward to this offensive scheme. We have a lot of speed and we're very very blessed to have tremendous speed at our skill positions. And our offensive line, once Braun and Barclay get back, could be very very formidable
[On special teams]: I worry about our special teams a little bit. We're now on our fourth punter in four years in Corey Smith. Our punting game is still a question mark. Our kicker, Tyler Bitancurt, he's won big games for us, but he missed two there in the [Champs Sports] Bowl, so he's got some work to do. ... What we really need to step up to the plate, to be very honest, is our return men. Our return men we just haven't hit the big play like Tavon did a couple years ago against UConn [in 2009], or like Shawn Terry used to do in the early 2000s. We need to get more productivity on our punt and kickoff retrun. That's one of the big things we'll work hard at this spring.
Who do you have now as your return men?
BS: Tavon Austin and Bradley Starks could be good return men. I really like Brodrick Jenkins with the punt return game; I think he has a chance to catch punts and maybe make a name for himself. Some other skill guys we'll throw back there. That's what spring practice is all about. We'll see who can catch a punt, make a couple of guys miss and give us a couple of first downs on these returns.
Sounds like you hired an interesting special teams coach this week in Daron Roberts.
BS: He's going to help out. I got a nice call from a friend of mine with the Detroit Lions who said, "Boy, he's a great guy, very much a student of the game." He's going to bring some excitement to the game. He's young, and I know our players will rally around him. ... We're going to break it up again -- Steve [Dunlap] will be doing the defensive side of the special teams like kickoff and punt return, punt block, and Daron is going to be heading up kickoff return units and things like that. So there shouldn't be that much change there.
Again, we need more productivity there. We do have the talent, we just haven't done it yet. That's something that has to come back to the arsenal. I know what we're going to do on defense, and I think I know what we're going to do on offense, because we have fast playmakers who make people miss in space, and that's what this new offense is going to be all about. That's going to be exciting, and I can't wait to see it in action. But our return game has to get better.
Can you get a sense, through meetings and workouts, how well the team is picking up the new offense so far?
BS: Oh yeah. It's like anything else. It will look worse before it gets better. That's true no matter what brand of offense or defense you run. We think we have a pretty good deal going with this 3-3 stack. We know it, the coaches know it, the players know it inside and out pretty much. Now we just have to get the new players ... to carry on the tradition. And then offensively, I'm excited about what's on the horizon. We haven't done it yet, we haven't gotten a first down yet, but I think we're going to have a few tricks in the arsenal that's going to make us more explosive, and maybe we can get some of that game-breaking type play that we need to have.