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WVU brings optimism to season

By Staff | Jul 28, 2010

With 16 starters returning from a team that went 9-4 a year ago, it’s only natural optimism surrounds the 2010 West Virginia University football program.

Then again, there’s always optimism surrounding the Mountaineers, who are as beloved in their home state as any team in America.

While there is indeed some cause for positive thinking, there is one question mark that looms so large, even die-hard Mountaineer fans are taking a wait-and-see attitude before proclaiming their favorite team the Big East Conference champions and buying plane tickets to a New Year’s Day bowl game.

The question mark comes at the most important position on the field —quarterback. After Pat White led West Virginia to four bowl wins, including the first two major bowl victories in school history, senior Jarrett Brown replaced him last year.

Only when Brown was injured or WVU was well ahead or well behind did newcomer Geno Smith gain any valuable playing time.

Smith, who will be a sophomore this fall, is the opening-day starter, the closing-day starter and will start every other game in between as long as he stays healthy.

Smith completed 32 of 49 passes last year for 309 yards. He showed just enough flashes of brilliance for WVU fans to get excited about his taking over the offense. He showed just enough immaturity at the position to cause WVU fans to be a little concerned.

While the running game will be a strength with Noel Devine returning for his senior season (he enters it with 3,381 career yards), it is the passing game that WVU must develop.

In addition to the question mark at quarterback, WVU also enters the season with a receiving corps that has some talented individuals, but lacks depth. Leading receiver Jock Sanders returns after catching 72 passes for 688 yards last year. Bradley Starks and Tavon Austin join him at wideout. The passing game will be the key to WVU’s success — or lack thereof.

The good news is that West Virginia returns four starters on the offensive line, including Parkersburg junior Josh Jenkins. Great football teams start with the offensive line and since that is the case, WVU has the potential to be a great football team.

Especially when you consider 10 defensive starters are back. Yes, the Mountaineers must replace do-it-all linebacker Reed Williams, but the rest of the defense returns including defensive tackle Scooter Berry, who anchors the line, senior linebackers Pat Lazear and J.T. Thomas, and the secondary led by free safety Robert Sands, who had five interceptions last season.

It’s also comforting to know that the kicking game will be in the capable hands, er foot, of sophomore Tyler Bitancurt, who single-handedly turned what looked like a West Virginia weakness last year into a team strength by not only assuming the kicking chores as a freshman, but by being rock-solid in that capacity.

West Virginia has won nine games in each of Bill Stewart’s first two full seasons as the Mountaineers’ head coach. There’s little reason to think it can’t equal — or perhaps even better —that standard this year.

The schedule is favorable. Las Vegas oddsmakers have WVU as an underdog just once — in its Sept. 25 trip to LSU. The Nov. 26 game at Pittsburgh is rated even and well could decide who wins the Big East championship and the league’s automatic berth in a Bowl Championship Series game. That game will feature Devine, who is ending his college career, against Pittsburgh running back Dion Lewis. who rushed for 1,799 yards last season as a freshman.

In addition to the visit to LSU, the non-conference schedule features home games against Coastal Carolina, Maryland and UNLV —all of whom will be significant underdogs at Mountaineer Field. The only other non-league road game is the annual Friends of Coal Bowl game against Marshall, an in-state rival still seeking its first win over WVU.

The Big East schedule has WVU playing in Morgantown four times and making road trips to Connecticut. Louisville and Pittsburgh.

Most league observers believe the Mountaineers’ annual Backyard Brawl between WVU and Pittsburgh will decide the Big East champion. A win there and WVU could be headed to its third major bowl game in five seasons.