MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) —West Virginia hit the fast-forward button on the Dana Holgorsen era.
There were no complaints from the former Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, whose first head coaching job coincides with higher expectations with the Mountaineers. West Virginia has not gone to a Bowl Championship Series game or compiled a 10-win season since 2007.
“I’m really excited about the fact that we’re able to do this a year early,” Holgorsen said.
He got that chance because seven months after Holgorsen was hired as offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting, coach Bill Stewart was forced out in June. Stewart had been scheduled to step down after the 2011 season.
It was one of many offseason distractions that included an intoxicated Holgorsen being escorted out of a casino, the university being placed on two years’ probation for major rules violations, and the dismissal of linebacker Branko Busick following his arrest on an armed robbery charge.
The start of fall practice couldn’t have come sooner.
“As a team, we really didn’t focus on a lot of that outside stuff,” fullback Ryan Clarke said. “We were just making sure we were trying to get ready for the season.”
Holgorsen had been focused on retooling the offense to his liking and becoming head coach didn’t change that. With third all-time leading rusher Noel Devine and all-time leading receiver Jock Sanders gone, finding the best playmakers to complement quarterback Geno Smith is Holgorsen’s biggest challenge heading into the Sept. 4 season opener against Marshall.
“Offensively, we’re still a work in progress,” Holgorsen said. “We’ll take what we got and figure out who our best players are, and we’ll figure out how to play them and get them the ball. You never have exactly what you want, but we’ll take what we have and find a way to make it work.”
He made it work in his last two stops.
At Oklahoma State, which returned just four offensive starters in Holgorsen’s only season as offensive coordinator, the Cowboys scored at least 33 points 11 times. Before that at Houston, quarterback Case Keenum became the second player in Bowl Subdivision history to throw for more than 5,000 yards in each of two seasons.
West Virginia’s fortunes start with Smith, who threw for 2,763 yards with 24 touchdowns and just seven interceptions in his first year as a starter. Smith, who’s coming off foot surgery in January, needs to stay healthy because his backup is freshman Paul Millard.
Holgorsen’s offenses have been up-tempo and balanced. If that’s true this season, he’s going to have to get some mileage out of two running back slots that are the team’s biggest mystery.
He plans to go with a three-back rotation. Freshman Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and Vernard Roberts are getting plenty of looks, along with veterans Trey Johnson, Shawne Alston, Ryan Clarke and Matt Lindamood. The veterans combined for just one-third of the team’s carries last season and 664 yards.
Holgorsen has called the efforts of his wide receivers spotty and inconsistent so far. The focus will be on Tavon Austin, who caught 58 passes for a team-leading 787 yards last year. Among those getting positive reviews is Ryan Nehlen, the grandson of college Hall of Fame coach Don Nehlen.
The veteran offensive line had to be retooled after starting left guard Josh Jenkins was lost for the season with a left knee injury suffered in spring practice.
Defensively, Holgorsen kept Stewart’s staff intact, which means a continuation of the 3-3-5 formation under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The nation’s third-best defense a year ago lost seven starters but returns four significant playmakers.
Bruce Irvin compiled 14 sacks despite being used primarily on passing downs at defensive end. Julian Miller (nine sacks) is being moved from defensive end to the interior. Keith Tandy, the 2010 Big East leader with six interceptions, moves from right to left cornerback and leading tackler Terence Garvin returns at safety.
Joining them in a significant role is linebacker Najee Goode, who moves from strong-side to middle linebacker after starting 11 games last year.
“When I came to West Virginia, I quickly realized that it was the defense that had been winning so many games over the last few years,” Holgorsen said. “We have a very good nucleus of defensive players coming back that can help us be as successful defensively as we have been.”