JOHN RABY,AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Chasing a Big 12 championship will be a tall order for West Virginia unless Dana Holgorsen can do some patchwork on both sides of the ball.
The Mountaineers’ third-year coach hopes a group of transfers can help shore up big holes on offense and improve a defense that was one of the nation’s worst last year.
West Virginia is coming off a disappointing 7-6 season that included a five-game losing streak. They Mountaineers aren’t considered to be a contender for a Big 12 championship in their second season in the conference.
West Virginia fans got spoiled by an offense that averaged 40 points per game a year ago. But with only three returning starters on offense, the Mountaineers will be pressed to continue a streak of 11 consecutive seasons of playing in a bowl game.
Holgorsen must choose from three candidates to replace departed quarterback Geno Smith and has a group of mostly inexperienced wide receivers looking to fill the void left by Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
“We’re talking to our guys about this all the time: How are we going to score a point without three of the best players to ever play the game here?” Holgorsen said Monday. “That doesn’t mean that we don’t have guys on our roster that can’t score touchdowns. There are some guys probably waiting in the wings or maturing or developing that we just don’t know who they are yet.”
For now, the challenges not only are to get the players to understand the system but to replicate its dizzying pace of play.
“In the Big 12 we’re going to have to not only be able to play fast, which is what we like to do offensively, but we have to be able to defend that as well,” Holgorsen said. “We have a long ways to be functional offensively and defensively when it comes to tempo.”
West Virginia opens the season at home Aug. 31 against William & Mary.
Here are five things to watch as West Virginia tries to keep up with the rest of the Big 12:
1. QB SCRAMBLE: West Virginia opens Big 12 play on Sept. 7 at Oklahoma, making it urgent to get Smith’s replacement in tune with the offense. Longtime backup Paul Millard has played 11 games in Holgorsen’s system but has never thrown more than nine passes in a contest. Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, who graduated in the spring and is available to play immediately, played eight games last season as EJ Manuel’s backup with the Seminoles and in games in 2011 against Wake Forest and Clemson. The third QB in the mix is redshirt freshman Ford Childress. Holgorsen said Millard so far has made both the best and the worst decisions in practice. “The guy that probably reduces the poor decisions will be the guy that wins the job,” Holgorsen said. “I think they’re all capable of being pretty good.”
2. FORGET 2012: It won’t take much to see improvements on West Virginia’s defense, which allowed 38 points per game and was near the bottom nationally in several passing categories last year. Keith Patterson took over at defensive coordinator for the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl. The defense has most of its starters back but needs to improve its coverage and tackling and not give up big gains. The unit returns its top two tacklers, sophomores Karl Joseph at safety and Isaiah Bruce at linebacker. The pair also combined for four of the team’s 10 interceptions.
3. TRANSFER HELP: West Virginia loaded up on nearly a dozen junior-college and immediate-play transfers for 2013. Trickett and former Houston running back Charles Sims could end up having the most impact. Among the juco transfers who could help out include wide receivers Ronald Carswell, Mario Alford and Kevin White, linebacker Brandon Golson, defensive lineman Dontrill Hyman and running back Dreamius Smith.
4. RUNNING STRONG: Sims adds to a running back unit that, for a change, is loaded with talent. Injuries have thinned the position in recent years and West Virginia hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Noel Devine in 2009. Sims is battling for a starting role with Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and Smith. Sims, Buie and Garrison all have 200-yard games on their college resumes. Both Sims and Buie ran for 851 yards last year. Garrison played sparingly while recovering from knee surgery. Smith was with the team during spring practice but has been slowed in preseason camp by a thigh bruise.
5. PASS CATCHERS: Holgorsen said he didn’t lose any sleep over the exits of Austin and Bailey, but it did leave gaping holes at wide receiver. Ivan McCartney is the top returnee with nine catches for 112 yards as a junior. McCartney left the team for personal reasons last November after struggling for playing time and returned to the roster in May. Holgorsen said his best player might be sophomore Cody Clay, who could line up at tight end, slot receiver or in the backfield.
Predicted order of finish in the Big 12: Eighth.
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