This may not be the ideal time for West Virginia to be joining the point-happy Big 12 Conference. Only five starters return to the Mountaineer defense . . . and both Terence Garvin and Paul Miller of the secondary are coming back from injuries. Jewone Snow was also injured and needs a full recovery.
Will Clarke has been a reliable defensive end who steadily improved as he moved through the 2011 season.
When defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel left to join the newly-in-place staff at Arizona with coach Rich Rodriguez, it signaled a change would be taking place from the usual 3-3-5 alignment preferred by the longtime assistant.
While Clarke was instrumental in West Virginia’s late-season success, he doesn’t have any company alongside that can be judged as anything more than ordinary off their play last season.
Jorge Wright did not distinguish himself.
The secondary would be virtually new if Miller or Garvin couldn’t play. Darwin Cook is a returning starter, but names like Brodrick Jenkins, Travis Bell, Doug Rigg, and Jared Barber don’t mean much to offensive coordinators at Oklahoma State or Oklahoma.
Miller and Garvin are seniors and the others in the secondary are all underclassmen.
Najee Goode was a playmaking linebacker but he is gone . . . and no first-year team in the offensive-minded Big 12 should make its initial splash with a crew of mostly untested linebackers.
Should the Mountaineers consistently fail to mount a sturdy pass rush their linebackers will be charged with providing enough individual heroics to win close games.
Nothing but inconsistency was provided by punters Corey Smith and Michael Molinari. And placekicker Tyler Bitancurt made for some heartstopping moments at times.
The first few games against Marshall, James Madison, and Maryland have to be proving grounds for many of the inexperienced linebackers and secondary players because when Baylor comes to Morgantown for the first-ever Big 12 game there will be no more tolerated learning-by-exploitation series for the defense.
Geno Smith, who will be a four-year starter at quarterback, surpassed nearly every single-season passing record held by Marc Bulger. If he stays healthy, Smith will claim every career record as well.
Should a viable running game somehow emerge to give balance to the Mountaineer offense, Smith could make the record book his for decades to come.
But finding a reliable running game won’t be easy. Ryan Clarke, oft-injured Dustin Garrison, and Andrew Buie are the runners of choice but none of them have given the impression they could have a 100-yard game every week.
Stedman Bailey is an all-America type receiver and Tavon Austin catches balls right and left. Austin returns kickoffs and punts and Bailey adds kick-returner to his ways of piling up all-purpose yardage.
Will a much-needed receiver who might catch 45 passes in 12 games come from a group of returnees that has J. D. Woods, Ryan Nehlen, and Ivan McCartney? If so, Bailey and Austin will be more effective. If not, something positive has to happen with West Virginia’s rushing offense.
Josh Jenkins comes back at offensive tackle. Despite missing the 2011 season after knee surgery he is still the most capable lineman. Joe Madsen and Jeff Braun return to the interior
and sophomore Quinton Spain moved to a starting spot in the last games of 2011. Pat Eger is another returning starter.
Should any capable depth be located, West Virginia’s offensive line should be a trusted area.
Should the scrambling of quarterback Smith leave him with an injury, the next in line is sophomore Paul Millard, a follow-the-script type who can’t do nearly as much as the starter.
Big 12. Big expectations. Big holes — especially on defense and possibly on special teams.
Gray uniforms. Covered walls no longer showing bare concrete.
The beginning of seasons featuring some unseen rivals . . . and trips to college towns nobody ever expected to see as followers of the West Virginia Mountaineers.