New faces take over the offense for West Virginia, and the process of moving on without some prolific playmakers begins in spring ball for the Mountaineers.
Geno Smith tore up defenses, completing 71.2 percent of his passes for 4,205 yards and 42 touchdowns against only six picks. He's gone, possibly the first pick in the NFL Draft. Tavon Austin was an unrealistically quick wide receiver and returner, and even showed his playmaking abilities at running back -- he had 344 yards on the ground against Oklahoma -- and will likely get selected in the draft as well. And Stedman Bailey reeled in 25 touchdowns -- seven more than any other player in the country -- causing him to declare for the NFL a year early.
Nobody's going to replace those three. The production they had in their three seasons at West Virginia doesn't have many parallels, as all three were elite college players who happened to be in the perfect system under Dana Holgorsen. But someone will have to try.
At quarterback, there are two options. First, and most likely to step up, is Paul Millard, a rising junior who threw 19 passes last year, including one in relief of Smith in a tight game against Oklahoma State. But a possible prospect is Ford Childress, a Houston native who redshirted last year. Spring ball could feature an open competition between the two for starting QB.
As for other skill positions, Andrew Buie will be a junior at running back. Wide receiver is a strange situation: the top three receivers -- Austin, Bailey, and J.D. Woods -- all graduated, Buie was the fourth receiver, and the fifth and seventh receivers, Ivan McCartney and Travares Copeland both left the team for personal reasons during last season. That leaves slot man Jordan Thompson as the top returning receiver on the squad; he had 85 yards receiving on a year the team threw for nearly 4,300. An exciting prospect to catch passes is Ronald Carswell, a former Alabama player who joins the Mountaineers after playing at a junior college last year, although he wasn't listed as an early enrollee as JUCO players often are.
But let's not forget that despite having all that offensive firepower, the 'Eers only went 7-6 last year after a collapse that saw a top 10 ranking turn into five straight losses and finish with a defeat in the Pinstripe Bowl. The blame for those troubles falls on the defense -- a unit that gave up a whopping 38.1 points per game, good for 117th in the nation. After the obvious dissatisfaction with the way things went in 2012, Keith Patterson took over defensive coordinator duties, which he had previously split with Joe DeForest, now mainly in charge of special teams. West Virginia returns seven starters from that very young defense, which hopefully will take strides going forward.
Spring practice start date: March 10
Spring game date, location, TV info: April 20
Defense: Seven. The team's two top returning tacklers, safety Karl Joseph and linebacker Isaiah Bruce, were both freshman last year, so there's youth, which is a good thing. Also back are linemen Shaq Rowell and Will Clarke, linebacker Doug Rigg, cornerback Brodrick Jenkins, and safety Darwin Cook.
Biggest addition: New receivers coach Lonnie Galloway will be an important piece with so many yards in need of being replaced at that spot. He'll be coaching Kevin White, a three-star JUCO transfer enrolled early at wide receiver, along with the many guys in the program already.
Biggest loss: Depends on which of Smith, Austin, and Bailey you think is least replaceable. West Virginia also lost quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who went to Texas A&M to coach Johnny Manziel.
New players? Seven players joined West Virginia's class early, including two JUCO transfers at skill positions: Dreamius Smith is a running back who led his team to back-to-back national championship appearances, while Corey Smith was a three-star wide receiver. Here's Smith's highlight video:
The early enrollees out of high school are three-star quarterback Chavas Rawlins, three-star running back Wendell Smallwood, three-star wide receiver Dalkiel Shorts, four-star safety Maliek Greaves, and four-star linebacker Hodari Christian. Considering their talent and the ... open nature of things on defense, Greaves and Christian could contribute early.
New coaches? There's been a lot of shakeup: in addition to the defensive coordinator shuffling, the team got rid of some staff members on that side of the ball. They bring in Tony Gibson for his second stint at WVU to coach safeties, former East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell to coach cornerbacks, and Galloway to coach receivers.
New schemes? Keith Patterson is the new defensive coordinator, after a setup in which he and Joe DeForest split duties last year. DeForest had been with the head coach at Oklahoma State before coming to West Virginia. Meanwhile, Patterson was on Todd Graham's staffs at Pittsburgh and Tulsa before coming to West Virginia. Perhaps Holgorsen decided it was a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth.