Fuel for the fire
West Virginia University's football team is getting lots of love these days. The explosiveness of running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White have the Mountaineers in virtually everyone's Top 10 for the upcoming season. The perception of an easy schedule has the Mountaineers on many short lists to appear in the National Championship game in New Orleans next January 8.
While this kind of publicity is becoming more common in recent seasons, it may be wise to see just what happens next before declaring that the WVU program has arrived. Even so, back in the year 2000 or so, would any WVU fan have predicted a Sugar Bowl win and then successive seasons where Mountaineers name was bandied about as a national championship contender? Well, of course there would have been some, but they are the ones who say as much every year.
Rich Rodriguez was hired as the head football coach in 2001 and his goal was to win a national championship at WVU. That dream seemed to be going up in smoke last December when Rodriguez flirted with Alabama before the state native decided to remain at WVU in the 12th hour. How close Rodriguez was to leaving his alma mater has been speculated on for months. Perhaps we'll never know if he was going to go, or if he was leveraging WVU. Probably some elements of each were in play.
No matter now. Rodriguez is still here and he and his staff have brought in what could be his finest recruiting class to go with what figures to be an explosive offense. As effective as the offense was a year ago, the numbers they could have put up had the defense been able to get off the field would have been astonishing.
With a solid defense, West Virginia would be an easy favorite to win the Big East and play in New Orleans. The problem is there are serious concerns about the defense. That unit was giving up over 30 points a game in the second half of last season and there aren't a lot of new faces in the fold for this season. Still, a few new faces and some tweaking of positions may provide some help.
Rodriguez has said, "We don't need new players, we need our players to play better." That formula may work, if it does, great!
If there is a certainty for the upcoming season though, it will be the WVU offense being a force. During spring drills Rodriguez experimented with some different formations that should prove effective. The most intriguing is White in the shotgun with no other backs in the backfield. Slaton will be in the slot and Owen Schmitt will line up at tight end or H back. Of course wide out Darius Reynaud will be somewhere.
Slaton's pass catching abilities were on display when he was a freshman and he can catch the football. Last season the sophomore had a pair of wrist injuries, so he wasn't used to catch the ball very much. So, while putting Slaton in the slot will likely give him more opportunities to operate in space, the real reason for the players learning new positions may be something else.
Under the above scenario WVU can go from a full backfield to no backfield without changing players thus keeping the defense from making substitutions. This will be an interesting season to say the least.