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Take Two: Mountaineers Try To Solve Big 12

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West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen told his players not to read any media coverage of the team this spring. "Nobody thinks we're any good," he said. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
West Virginia Mountaineers head coach Dana Holgorsen told his players not to read any media coverage of the team this spring. "Nobody thinks we're any good," he said. Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

There are four spring games Saturday in the Big 12. None is more interesting than the one at West Virginia.

Sure, there’s a new coach, Kliff Kingsbury’s offense and his frog skin sunglasses at Texas Tech. There are the three quarterbacks at Oklahoma State and a debuting offensive coordinator who was at the Division II level a year ago. There’s also Iowa State, where coach Paul Rhoads is bound to say anything before, during or after the game.

At West Virginia? No one truly knows, but it'll be something to see. Finally.

A handful of the 15 practices were open, though for only 30 minutes. A reconfigured 3-4 defense has been kept out of sight. No one knows how it's going to look when a new offensive line coach, hired from Stanford, works with an offensive philosophy decidedly unlike Stanford's. The team released a depth chart last week, but it listed three co-starters at quarterback, leaving unclear the spring’s marquee position battle. A bunch of other players won’t have anywhere near the same role once freshmen and junior college transfers arrive during the summer.

And that’s all the truth according to the Mountaineers, not the media.

WVU is a long way from where it needs or even wants to be and Saturday’s game won’t nearly fix everything that needs fixed.

And, again, that’s the word from the team.

“We’ve done a lot of teaching and a lot of evaluating, but we have a long way to go on all three sides of the ball,” coach Dana Holgorsen said at a press conference last week. “We are not prepared to name any starters, and in my mind, I am not prepared to figure out what type of team we will have yet."

Yet the spring game has to happen to start a new season and get rid of the bad taste left behind at the Pinstripe Bowl, where WVU was humbled one last time by Syracuse.

The Mountaineers invested a lot in leaving the Big East to get into the Big 12. There was the $11 million cash settlement as part of the exit fee to get out of the Big East and join the Big 12 in time to play in 2012, which was perhaps the best thing WVU had going in its favor. Holgorsen and much of his staff then receieved significant pay raises, just so WVU’s salaries would be on par with the rest of the Big 12.

The return on the investment was deflating. The team started 5-0 and was ranked in the top five before finishing 7-6 with a comedic defense that conspired against an offense that next week will have quarterback Geno Smith and receiver Tavon Austin drafted in the first round and receiver Stedman Bailey and center Joe Madsen called before the weekend is over. The Big 12 thing just didn't catch on as fast or as hold on as tight as optimists had hoped, though the 2-6 conclusion has as much to do with it as a conference schedule featuring no rivals.

The program missed an opportunity last season to build something special, something that would sustain the program during a season like the one that will follow with so many questions and so much doubt.

“Nobody thinks we’re any good,” Holgorsen continued at his press conference. “I encourage our guys not to read anything online, on the message boards or in any other publications. No one knows what our team is going to be like. The only people that can dictate that are the coaches and players.”

A lot of that has changed, too. Starters and backups are gone, but there's more. The defense was so bad that Holgorsen fired his cornerbacks coach and reassigned the safeties coach/defensive coordinator, Joe DeForest, to run the special teams. That move unseated last year’s special teams coach, who took a golden parachute to a desk job in the football office.

That sort of thing can happen in the Big 12, where offenses cost defense coaches their sleep and their jobs. But Holgorsen also lost three of his four offensive assistants to other jobs. Quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, who was to be relied on to help pick and tutor Smith’s successor among Paul Millard, Ford Childress or Chavas Rawlins, left to work with Johnny Manziel at Texas A&M and pick up a title as co-offensive coordinator.

Bill Bedenbaugh, the offensive line coach Holgorsen played with at Iowa Wesleyan and coached with at Texas Tech, took the same job at Oklahoma. Running backs coach Robert Gillespie went to Tennessee and the SEC, where he played and coached previously.

That’s a lot of names, but that’s nothing new at WVU. The Mountaineers have won three BCS games in the last eight years, but that’s also happened with three completely different coaching staffs. That's a particularly impressive accomplishment, but also challenging for any program to survive.

The latest turnover was not supposed to keep happening and WVU. Not in the Big 12. The move was supposed to make WVU a destination and finally relieve longtime fans who had seen too many coaches use the Mountaineers as their stepping stone.

WVU’s nine-year run of postseason basketball appearances ended with a 13-19 record in its first Big 12 season. An 11-year streak of postseason football appearances is in jeopardy this fall, though WVU isn’t unlike many other Big 12 teams replacing a quarterback, star receivers and key defensive players and working with new assistants.

This is not to say it’s the end for WVU. There’s at least a chance the Mountaineers can manage similar problems better than their peers. Yet with new coaches and players running the offense and defense and special teams, with four conference home games and five conference road games, with so many people with so much yet to learn about the Big 12, it’s the end of the beginning.

“It’s going to take some time to go through this before we truly understand it,” Holgorsen said at the spring football media day last month. "When we show them film on the specific schools, it makes sense to them now. It is probably going to take another year and a return trip.

"There are still five schools in the Big 12 that we haven’t been to yet, so I think it takes time to play these guys to where you can look back on last year, but also look back on the two years prior to go into that specific stadiums and have guys on your team and a whole bunch of coaches that understand what they are getting themselves into.”