Big 12: Connor Arlia

Next up in our fall camp previews, the Big 12 sophomores from out east.

Schedule: West Virginia's players reported to camp on Wednesday, and practice begins today in advance of the Mountaineers' season opener at home against William and Mary.

Setting the scene: Dana Holgorsen likes to say this season is a polar opposite of last year, and he's right. There's no preseason hype swirling around the Mountaineers, who began last season just outside the top 10 and rose to the top five with a 5-0 start before suffering a five-game losing streak. All of WVU's experience is on the defensive end, while there are lots of questions about who'll be doing what and how often at the offensive skill positions. Even with that defensive experience, new playcaller Keith Patterson has his work cut out for him after the Mountaineers finished dead last in the Big 12 in scoring defense a year ago, giving up over 38 points a game.

All eyes on: Has to be the quarterbacks here. Paul Millard and Ford Childress battled to a stalemate in the spring, though there are indications that the elder Millard has an edge on the younger, more promising Childress. Then Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, a Morgantown, W. Va., native, crashed the scene and spiced up the race in fall camp. WVU coaches didn't guarantee him anything, but his willingness to come after a spring visit and the coaches' willingness to have him definitely indicates he'll have a shot to win the job. Holgorsen wants to name a starter sooner than later, but sorting this spot out won't be easy.

Key battle: The running backs will be set, but WVU has another logjam at receiver trying to replace Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin. Developing a rapport with the quarterbacks this fall will be a huge task, but K.J. Myers, Connor Arlia and Kevin White emerged from the spring with starting spots. Jordan Thompson figures to be a factor, and if incoming recruit Mario Alford gets eligible, he may get a chance to contribute as well. Dante Campbell injured his shoulder during the spring, but he might crash the party, too. It's anyone's guess as to who leads this team in receiving next season, but fall camp may go a long way in deciding who logs a 1,000-yard season in an offense with lots of catches up for grabs.

On the mend: Dustin Garrison. Garrison returned last season from a knee injury suffered in Orange Bowl practices at the end of the 2011 season, but he wasn't the back who won the Mountaineers' starting job as a freshman midway through the season. Now, he's got a tough battle in fall camp to win carries. Charles Sims is an experienced, top-level player who transferred in from Houston, but last year's leading rusher, Andrew Buie, is still around and juco transfer Dreamius Smith will be gunning for playing time, too.

Outlook: West Virginia was picked second in the Big 12 a year ago, but after a disappointing 7-6 debut and the NFL sapping its three best players, the Mountaineers were picked eighth in the Big 12 this time around. There's plenty of room for upward mobility in a league devoid of elite teams but littered with quality squads, though.

Breaking out: WVU's defense was a disaster a year ago, but if we see improvement this time around, you can probably credit it to a pair of maturing defensive sophomore stars. Isaiah Bruce and Karl Joseph were major bright spots a year ago, but their efforts went mostly unnoticed in the weekly parade of points given up from the Mountaineers. Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts is out and Joe DeForest was stripped of playcalling duties, but WVU has the athleticism and talent to field a serviceable defense. The big question is how the Mountaineers adjust to another year of offenses they're simply not used to competing against on a weekly basis.

Quotable: Dana Holgorsen, on replacing Geno Smith. "You're going to lose good players in college football. It happens every single year. Geno is going to be a great pro. We don't try to compare him to anybody on our staff or any of that, but we're in the same situation as, I think, seven or eight other Big 12 schools right now."
2012 record: 7-6
2012 Big 12 record: 4-5
Returning starters: Offense: 3; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 0

Top returners: S Karl Joseph, LB Isaiah Bruce, OL Quinton Spain, RB Andrew Buie, RB Dustin Garrison, DL Will Clarke, S Darwin Cook

Key losses: WR Tavon Austin, QB Geno Smith, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, LB Terence Garvin, LB Josh Francis, OG Jeff Braun

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Passing: Geno Smith (4,198 yards)
Rushing: Andrew Buie* (850 yards)
Receiving: Stedman Bailey (1,627 yards)
Tackles: Karl Joseph* (102)
Sacks: Terence Garvin (6)
Interceptions: Karl Joseph*, Isaiah Bruce* (2)

Spring answers:

1. Passing weapons found. The Mountaineers sorted out their receivers and found some solid replacements for Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to help ease the transition to a new quarterback. K.J. Myers and Connor Arlia had solid springs, along with newcomer Kevin White, a junior college transfer. Jordan Thompson closed with a big spring game, but he has to prove he can do it in a real game.

2. Corners hit the reset button. Cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts is gone, replaced by Brian Mitchell. Pat Miller graduated, but the corners are strating from scratch this spring. Brodrick Jenkins reclaimed his starting spot, and a pair of young players in Nana Kyeremeh and Brandon Napolean should be in the rotation on the opposite side, too. This was the biggest problem area for the defense last season, which looked completely overmatched against Big 12 offenses.

3. Strength in (backfield) numbers. Dana Holgorsen has a reputation as a guy who wants to throw it all around the yard, but that's not necessarily true. This year, he may prove it. WVU will throw it plenty, but running back may be this team's biggest strength. Dustin Garrison is finally healthy and 2012 leading rusher Andrew Buie returns. Juco transfer Dreamius Smith provides even more help at the position. WVU couldn't run the ball consistently last season, but look for them to do it often in the fall.

Fall questions

1. Who's the quarterback? The spring closed with a quarterback competition coach Dana Holgorsen described as "wide open." Texas natives Paul Millard and Ford Childress are neck and neck, and that competition will extend into the fall. Millard has more experience. Childress has more arm strength. This one will be unpredictable going into fall. Anything could happen.

2. Is the defense adjusting? All the leadership and experience this season is on the defensive side of the ball, a stark change from last year's team, where the components of the passing game were better than just about anyone in the Big 12. The new league's offenses got the best of WVU's defense last season, but can they prove they learned from those bumps in the road? No guarantees on that one.

3. Sorting out the offensive line. Joe Madsen leaves a big hole at center for the Mountaineers, and just two starters return from last year's unit. Ron Crook came from Stanford to replace departed OL coach Bill Bedenbaugh and the battle to replace Madsen at center is one of the most interesting. Senior Pat Eger closed the spring as the starter, beating out redshirt freshman Tyler Orlosky, but juco transfer Stone Underwood will muddy up that race come fall.
Time for a closer look at West Virginia's spring game, where the main attraction was well before kickoff.

What happened:
  • Paul Millard earned the first snaps with the offense and finished with 185 yards and three touchdowns on 16-of-27 passing.
  • Ford Childress completed 14-of-21 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown.
  • Jordan Thompson caught six passes for 123 yards and three touchdowns.
  • Dustin Garrison and Dreamius Smith combined for 89 yards on 14 carries.
  • Defensive lineman Kyle Rose finished with two sacks.
  • Blue (defense) beat Gold (offense), 41-33.
What we learned:
  • There's not much movement in the quarterback race. Saturday's game was a rough start for the offense, which didn't score until midway through the second quarter, but both quarterbacks played pretty well, and coach Dana Holgorsen will have a tough job over the next couple months figuring out the starter. There's something to be said for Millard getting the first reps, but that might just be experience, and the fact that somebody had to do it. "Not only are we not ready to name a starter at quarterback, we’re not ready to do that at about 20 other positions," Holgorsen told reporters. "The team that we field in September is going to look a lot different. We have so many new guys coming in, and we have so many young guys that are going to continue to develop."
  • Don't fire up the Jordan Thompson hype machine yet. Thompson's play was outstanding, but after looking like the next Wes Welker last spring and disappearing in the fall, even Holgorsen couldn't help but have some fun in the middle of frustration about his lack of production. "He had a good game last spring, too. He will go down in the history books as the greatest spring-game player of all-time. Until he plays like that in a game, we’re going to call it like it is," Holgorsen said. "I haven’t seen him play like that in a game yet. Until he does that in a game, we’re not going to talk about it." Fair enough.
  • The receivers are showing some potential. I do see Thompson turning a corner this fall, but you've got to be encouraged by juco transfer Kevin White grabbing five balls for 72 yards and a 46-yard score from Millard. Connor Arlia's four catches for 39 yards was the only other major standout, but I'm intrigued to see if he holds off Thompson to start at inside receiver next fall.
  • WVU's new uniforms are outstanding. The team had a presentation before the game to reveal the new uniforms, which will have blue, white and Old Gold helmets, jerseys and pants, giving the Mountaineers 27 possible combinations. You can see them all here. Really sharp look. I love the all gold unis, and the white jerseys with blue trim look fantastic, too. The numbers, inspired by miners' pick axes, have been a little polarizing, but I'm a fan. What do you think?
Four Big 12 teams will kick off their spring games this weekend. We'll be offering up a preview of each throughout the day.

West Virginia

When: Saturday, 2 p.m.

What you need to know:
  • Tickets are $10 each.
  • Defense will wear blue, offense will wear gold.
What to watch:
  • The quarterback battle. There's not going to be much settled in this race on Saturday. It's still too close to call, and I'm betting even a dominant performance by Ford Childress or Paul Millard won't be enough for Dana Holgorsen to designate one a starter. Still, this will be one of the first times they take meaningful (in the most relative sense of the word) snaps with a real crowd in the stands at Milan Puskar Stadium. I expect both to put up really good numbers, but just how they do it should be fun to watch.
  • No defensive busts. That was the name of the game for West Virginia's defense last season. Keith Patterson is in charge of playcalling now, and can his maturing defense keep from losing guys over the top? Will it take notice when a running back leaks out of the backfield? Can it make tackles in the open field? All of that was problematic for the Mountaineers last season, but we might be able to see some flashes of progress this time around.
  • Where are the playmakers? Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey have gone on to fry bigger fish (and cornerbacks) in the NFL, and a slew of transfers means WVU is looking for a lot of new faces in the passing game. Sophomore KJ Myers broke through to earn a starting spot for now at one receiver position, joined by juco transfer Kevin White and inside receiver Connor Arlia. Jordan Thompson has been passed up on the depth chart by Arlia after a big spring and quiet fall, but there will be a lot of passes to go around. We might get a clearer picture of how this will shake out after Saturday.

Offseason to-do list: West Virginia

January, 22, 2013
Every year, there's lots of turnover and change for every college program. What do the Big 12 teams need to do before next fall? Let's take a look, starting with West Virginia.

1. Sort out the quarterbacks. I actually like both of these guys, but expect a high-quality quarterback competition this offseason between Paul Millard and Ford Childress. We've written a lot about Texas quarterbacks lately, and both Millard (Flower Mound) and Childress (Houston) both hail from the state. Dana Holgorsen has crafted a whole lot of great quarterbacks, and I like the chances for either Millard or Childress to be the next in line. I got a good look at both last spring, and though Millard has the edge in experience, don't be surprised if Childress edges out his older competition.

2. Find a defensive solution. The changes have come fast for WVU's defensive staff, and the biggest two decisions were moving Keith Patterson up to defensive play-caller and firing cornerbacks coach Daron Roberts. Longtime Oklahoma State coach Joe DeForest is still co-defensive coordinator, but the defense is what held West Virginia back last season, much more so than an inconsistent running game. There's a lot to fix defensively, but most of it is in the passing game. WVU was serviceable stopping the run. The task is simple this spring: Fix it.

3. Figure out who it can count on as playmakers. WVU had an exodus of receivers late in the season when Ivan McCartney and Travares Copeland transferred, and now has to deal with those consequences. Stedman Bailey predictably left early for the NFL and Tavon Austin graduated, but it's time for an overhaul for the offense. J.D. Woods is gone, too. West Virginia's leading receiver returning from last season's team? Jordan Thompson, a promising freshman who caught 13 passes for 85 yards (though running back Andrew Buie, who will be a junior, did catch 28 balls for 318 yards). Beyond him, there's Connor Arlia, who caught seven passes for 43 yards. Can WVU find a new breakout star this spring?