Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Early thoughts on first visit to Morgantown
By David Ubben
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Maybe it's silly, but I feel a bit like a trailblazer of sorts here in Mountaineers country. Those of us who hail from the Midwest or the South haven't had much reason to head to West Virginia, and I'd never been until yesterday. For most Big 12 fans and media, I'd say that's the case. Alas, I'll start there before moving to matters on the field.
The rumors you've heard are true. This campus and area is beautiful, just as advertised by West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen and just about anybody else who's been here. The drive from the Denver airport to Boulder used to be my favorite in the Big 12, but it's now been replaced by the drive from Pittsburgh to Morgantown. I had heard it was two hours. It's not. It's in the ballpark of an hour to 90 minutes. Easily doable. Unlike Boulder, there isn't one big looming mountain, though. The campus and surrounding area is set among rolling hills unlike anything you'll see in the Big 12, save some parts of Austin, Texas. The drive over gives you a sense of the landscape, and there are plenty of gorgeous views. You'll love the first time you make it. I grew up in Northwest Arkansas in the thick of the Ozark Mountains, and it reminded me of that area a lot. No huge peaks, but lots of gorgeous scenery. I can only imagine how it will look in the fall.
As for travel, I have some advice for airlines: Add more flights on fall weekends between Pittsburgh and Kansas City, Dallas and Houston, the three biggest hubs for Big 12 fans. If you get a direct flight into Pittsburgh, the travel won't be much different than trying to get to Texas A&M, Mizzou or Kansas State. I had to connect through Philadelphia, though, and it was a legitimate half-day of travel. It might take a little out of you heading into a game weekend.
West Virginia's Geno Smith is as physically imposing as any of his new Big 12 QB counterparts.
Unfortunately, I was on hand for the coldest day of the spring in West Virginia. Imagine my surprise when I woke up Wednesday morning to very legitimate snowfall. Dorothy, you're not in Texas anymore. It had been in the 70s and 80s for much of the workouts, but it was overcast and 50 degrees with blustery winds throughout Tuesday's two-plus-hour session, which included plenty of team drills. Holgorsen's teams typically don't tackle much, but players were going full contact on Tuesday, tackling to the ground during team drills, a rarity in the spring for some programs. Running back Ryan Clarke went down with an ankle injury, but his status is pending more examination from doctors.
I was struck by Geno Smith's physical prowess. I'm not sure I realized just how big he is. He's every bit of 6-foot-3 and 214 pounds, and maybe more. To me, he was more physically imposing than Landry Jones, who checks in at 6-4, 229. Other than Collin Klein, you won't see any Big 12 passers with the kind of physique Jones and Smith have, save newcomer Dayne Crist at Kansas.
Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin? Good grief, those two are as advertised. Nobody in the Big 12 is going to be able to cover Austin with any consistency. Bailey and Smith have been friends since growing up in South Florida, and Bailey will be productive, too. Smith's throwing reps were limited on Tuesday to give his shoulder a little rest, but he hit Bailey and Austin for rainbow 40- to 50-yard passes on consecutive plays during 11-on-11 drills Tuesday. Bailey isn't quite as physically impressive as Austin (namely his quickness), but he's really smart and coordinated, and he'll be able to get open and make plays like he did last year.
The quarterbacks behind Smith, by the way? Both Texas natives who I'm sure are itching to go up against some familiar faces. Sophomore Paul Millard is from Flower Mound, a Dallas suburb, and Ford Childress (6-5, 224) is from Houston. Both looked strong, and Millard hooked up with Ivan McCartney on a deep ball while working some with the first team early in practice. Honestly, WVU might have the best full set of QBs in the league right now, beyond starters.
The scariest thing about WVU right now? You probably know the skill-position players -- specifically at QB and receiver -- are as good as if not better than any in the Big 12. But look out for the youngsters, too. WVU is deep and have a lot of guys who keep on coming. One name already turning heads this spring: True freshman early enrollee Jordan Thompson, a Katy, Texas, native who made plenty of plays during Tuesday's practice, and took a huge hit from a pair of defenders. "They've been waiting to do that for a long time," yelled a teammate as another picked Thompson up and Holgorsen smiled at his "Welcome to Division I football" moment.
You know about Bailey and Austin, but look out for J.D. Woods, too. He looked the part of playmaker in Tuesday's practice, and the senior could finally be turning a corner after a quiet junior season.
I'll have plenty more through the week -- I'm here until Thursday -- so keep checking back for more from my trip to West Virginia.