Big 12: Dustin Garrison

This week we've been highlighting the key position battles for every program in the Big 12. We continue this series with West Virginia, which has several capable running backs, but one football to hand off.

Here's where the battle stands:

Contenders: senior Dreamius Smith, sophomore Wendell Smallwood, sophomore Rushel Shell, junior Dustin Garrison, senior Andrew Buie and freshman Donte Thomas-Williams

Who they replace: Charles Sims, who was a first-team All-Big 12 selection and the league's Offensive Newcomer of the Year after transferring in from Houston for his final season. Sims rushed for 1,095 yards and 11 touchdowns, and led all Big 12 running backs with 45 receptions and 401 receiving yards. Thanks in part to his versatility, Sims was a third-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, though he suffered an ankle injury this preseason that will likely keep him out for weeks.

What they offer: A lit bit of everything.

Smith, Sims' primary backup last year, is a tough runner, though slimmed down 15 pounds this offseason to improve his breakaway speed.

Smallwood resembles Sims in that he can be an effective receiver out of the backfield. Smallwood came on late last season and overtook Smith in spots as Sims' relief.

Garrison enjoyed a renaissance in the spring after being plagued by injuries the last two seasons. He actually led West Virginia in rushing in 2011, and has big-play potential as a receiver, as well.

Shell might be the most intriguing player in the backfield, if not the entire Mountaineers roster. The leading rusher in Pennsylvania state high school history transferred in to West Virginia after rushing for 641 yards as a freshman at Pitt. The Mountaineers are waiting for Shell's switch to flip. If it does, he could be a punishing runner between the tackles.

Buie and Thomas-Williams round out the backfield. Buie actually led the Mountaineers in rushing two years ago, but left the university before the 2013 season after getting buried on the depth chart. He's back on the roster, but with several other backs on the team, he's trying to get his way back on the field by showing he can fill multiple roles.

That leaves Thomas-Williams, who was one of the gems of Dana Holgorsen's signing class. Thomas-Williams could be the future of the West Virginia backfield, but with so many other options available, he could wind up redshirting.

Prediction: Possessing this many capable backs is a good problem to have, but the Mountaineers are not going to be able to hand out touches to everyone. Most likely, West Virginia will settle into a three-headed rotation, with Smith starting, Smallwood shifting between the backfield and the slot and Shell filling the role of power back. The Mountaineers, however, will have the luxury of riding the hot hand. And with Garrison and Buie, they'll have plenty of depth to dip into should any of the top three suffer an injury.
The last two weeks, we’ve been examining the strongest and weakest positions for each team in the Big 12 heading into the fall.

On Friday, we continue the series with West Virginia.

[+] EnlargeDreamius Smith
Dan Friend/USA TODAY SportsDreamius Smith is just one of many accomplished WVU RBs fighting for carries.
Strongest position: Running back

The Mountaineers running back corps is quite possibly the best position group in the entire conference. WVU features five different running backs who could win the starting job and/or handle the load as the main ball carrier this fall, including two running backs who have led the Mountaineers in rushing during their careers yet aren't considered favorites to start.

Sophomore Wendell Smallwood was the star of the spring, and his versatility ensures he will be a key part of the Mountaineers offense in 2014. He has the ability to play a similar role to Charles Sims with his running and receiving skills.

Senior Dreamius Smith returns after rushing for 494 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. Rushel Shell, a transfer from Pittsburgh, has terrific upside and size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds). Andrew Buie had 851 rushing yards in 2012, a team high, and returns after missing the 2013 season. Dustin Garrison, who led the squad with 742 rushing yards in 2011, also returns after a injury-riddled 2013 season.

And freshman Donte Thomas-Williams, the No. 138 player in the 2014 ESPN 300, joins the mix in the summer.

The competition for carries should be intense but WVU’s offense will be the beneficiary, as there will be minimal dropoff when the Mountaineers look to the the sideline for fresh legs in the backfield.

Weakest position: Defensive line

The Mountaineers need several players to step up along the defensive front.

Kyle Rose is the most productive returnee and is slated to move inside to defensive tackle after starting six games at defensive end as a sophomore. He had 49 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, last season.

Dontrill Hyman and Christian Brown finished the spring alongside Rose atop the depth chart but have combined to start only two games during their WVU careers. The Mountaineers should get a boost from former Gardner-Webb standout defensive end Shaquille Riddick, who decided to finish his career in Morgantown, W. Va., earlier this week.

The Mountaineers have some potential contributors along the defensive line but very little experience or proven playmakers. If WVU hopes to return to a bowl game, its defensive line unit will have to go from unproven to disruptive this fall.
For the past two weeks, we’ve been ranking the best units in the Big 12 by position.

Now, in our weekly poll, we’re asking for your opinion: Who has the league’s best offensive unit regardless of position?

We’re going to exclude the quarterback position, since that’s more about one player than the collective strength of an entire unit.

Sorry, Bryce Petty.

SportsNation

Who has the Big 12's best overall offensive positional unit?

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    19%
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    24%
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    16%
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    19%
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    22%

Discuss (Total votes: 5,751)

Petty’s receivers at Baylor, though, have a strong claim as the best offensive unit in the league. The Bears return four players who finished with at least 30 receptions last season, including Antwan Goodley, who produced 71 catches for 1,339 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2013. Baylor will also be adding arguably the deepest and most talented signing class at the position in the country, headlined by ESPN 300 receiver K.D. Cannon.

The Bears, however, aren’t the only ones loaded at receiver.

Texas Tech features the dynamic receiving trio of Jakeem Grant, Bradley Marquez and Reginald Davis, who combined for four touchdowns in the National University Holiday Bowl win over Arizona State. D.J. Polite-Bray emerged over the spring as a downfield burner on the outside. The Red Raiders have also added their top overall recruit from last year to the rotation in Devin Lauderdale, who was forced to attend junior college for a year after failing to initially qualify. Four-star slot receivers Byron Daniels and Ian Sadler will be joining the squad in the summer.

As deep as the Bears and Red Raiders are at receiver, there might not be a positional group in the Big 12 as deep as West Virginia’s running backs.

In their backfield, the Mountaineers have Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring in from Pitt, set Pennsylvania’s state high school career rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher from 2012) and Dustin Garrison, the team’s leading rusher from 2011 who had a tremendous spring following a string of injuries the previous three seasons. If that weren’t enough, four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams will be arriving in Morgantown this summer.

While not as deep, Texas’ three-headed monster in the backfield is more proven than West Virginia’s, though not without questions. Johnathan Gray is coming off an Achilles injury, and Joe Bergeron was barred from the team during the spring due to academics. But when together and healthy, the threesome of Malcolm Brown, Gray (both All-Big 12-caliber runners) and Bergeron is as fearsome as any in the country.

Last fall, the Texas backs ran behind the most experienced offensive line in the Big 12. This season, that distinction belongs to the Sooners, whose offensive line unit caps the poll.

All told, Oklahoma boasts 107 career starts along its offensive line, headlined by senior tackle Daryl Williams and guard Adam Shead, who have been starting since their redshirt freshman seasons. Guard/center Nila Kasitati and tackle Tyrus Thompson are also returning starters on an offense that placed second in the Big 12 in rushing last season.

So who does have the best offensive unit in the Big 12?

Baylor's or Texas Tech’s wide receivers? West Virginia's or Texas’ running backs? Or Oklahoma’s offensive line?

West Virginia spring wrap

May, 1, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the West Virginia Mountaineers:

1. Clint Trickett is the heavy favorite to open as the starting QB: Paul Millard and junior college transfer Skyler Howard battled to make a run at the starting QB job during the spring. Yet Trickett, who was out recovering from a shoulder injury, opened at the top of West Virginia’s post-spring depth chart. Barring another injury or a disastrous preseason, Trickett should be the starter when Mountaineers take the field in the opener vs. Alabama.

2. The backfield is loaded: The Mountaineers easily have the deepest stable of running backs in the Big 12. On top of returning Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood from last year’s rotation, Pitt transfer Rushel Shell and 2011 leading rusher Dustin Garrison both shined in the spring. Divvying up carries will be tricky, but the Mountaineers are stocked with talent in the backfield.

3. The depth is better: Coach Dana Holgorsen admitted a lack of depth had plagued West Virginia in its first two seasons in the Big 12. But all spring he touted the team’s improved depth, which includes seven returning starters on either side of the ball. More depth should help West Virginia stave off another late-season collapse in its new league.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeClint Trickett
Brad Davis/Icon SMICan Clint Trickett stay healthy and productive enough to hang on to West Virginia's QB job.
1. Who is the answer at QB? Trickett will likely open as the starter, but that doesn’t mean he will stay there. Trickett was inconsistent at times, and at 180 pounds, prone to injury. Howard was unable to win the job in the spring, but he or incoming freshman William Crest could get another shot down the line if Trickett struggles or is sidelined with another injury.

2. Can the WRs make more plays? The Mountaineers return starting receivers Mario Alford, Daikiel Shorts and Kevin White, but collectively the trio produced only two 100-yard receiving games all last year. Part of that was due to the inconsistent QB play, but part of it was on them. The talent is there at receiver for West Virginia to be way more explosive in the passing game.

3. Will the new defensive regime make a difference? In two years in the Big 12, West Virginia has ranked ninth and last in the league in scoring defense. After coordinator Keith Patterson bolted for Arizona State, Holgorsen promoted safeties coach Tony Gibson to coordinator, then hired longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley. The two emphasized a new defensive mentality this spring. Whether they’ll be successful won’t be answered until the season.

One way-too-early prediction:

Despite facing a brutal schedule that could include three preseason top 10 opponents, West Virginia will get back to a bowl game, leading to Holgorsen returning as coach in 2015.
With spring ball done, we’re reexamining and reranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Tuesday with running backs. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:


1. West Virginia (pre-spring ranking: 4): West Virginia running backs coach JaJuan Seider has one of the best and most difficult jobs in the Big 12. Seider has an embarrassment of riches at his position in Dreamius Smith (the No. 1 juco back in 2013), Wendell Smallwood (who played last year as a true freshman), Rushel Shell (who before transferring from Pitt set the Pennsylvania state high school rushing record), Andrew Buie (the team’s leading rusher in 2012) and Dustin Garrison, West Virginia’s leading rusher from 2011, who, finally healthy again, enjoyed a resurgent spring. The Mountaineers also will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. The difficult part for Seider will be divvying up carries to so many capable backs. But if the Mountaineers can keep everyone happy and find the right combination, this could become a devastating and versatile running back stable.

2. Texas (1): Coach Charlie Strong delivered promising news on Monday in San Antonio, suggesting Johnathan Gray could be cleared from his Achilles injury by mid-June. Strong also said that Joe Bergeron will be rejoining the team shortly, too, after sitting out the spring to focus on academics. When healthy and eligible, the trio of Malcolm Brown, Gray and Bergeron is a formidable bunch and the backbone of the Texas offense.

3. Baylor (3): Shock Linwood and Devin Chafin exited spring as the co-starters, but Johnny Jefferson left the biggest impression in the spring game. The Bears have a track record of spreading carries around, which means Big 12 fans will become very acquainted with the talented redshirt freshman next season.

4. Oklahoma State (5): One of the biggest surprises of the spring was how much the Cowboys used Tyreek Hill at running back. Oklahoma State is planning to utilize the nation’s top juco playmaker the way West Virginia did Tavon Austin two years ago. In other words, Hill could line up in the backfield one play then slot receiver the next. Either way, arguably the fastest player in college football gives the Cowboys a dynamic lightning component to complement the thunderous running of senior Desmond Roland, who led all Big 12 backs in touchdowns last season.

5. Oklahoma (3): There might not be a Big 12 backfield with more upside than Oklahoma’s. Of course, with that upside comes little experience. Sophomore Keith Ford has the potential to be a punishing inside runner, but he had fumbling issues last season as a freshman that re-emerged during the spring. If he can’t hang onto the ball, he won’t play, no matter how tough he runs between the tackles. After getting passed by Ford on the depth chart last year, Alex Ross bounced back with an impressive spring. Early enrollee Dimitri Flowers was a revelation this spring as a powerful run-blocking fullback in the mold of Trey Millard. If fellow incoming freshman Joe Mixon lives up to his recruiting hype, the Sooners could feature their most potent rushing attack in years.

6. Iowa State (8): The most underrated one-two punch at running back in the league resides in Ames. According to first-year offensive coordinator Mark Mangino, Aaron Wimberly and DeVondrick Nealy were sharp all spring and will spearhead an offense that could surprise in 2014. The key will be keeping the slight but explosive Wimberly relatively healthy, which he never really was before and after rushing for 137 and 117 yards back to back against Tulsa and Texas. Wimberly, however, was 100 percent all spring, and it showed, as he racked up 68 yards on just nine touches in the spring game.

7. TCU (7): TCU had to make do without its three top backs in the spring due to injuries. Aaron Green suffered a broken collarbone, Kyle Hicks had a shoulder bruise, and returning leading rusher B.J. Catalon dealt with a nagging hamstring injury. All three, however, should be fine for the fall, and could form a reliable rotation at running back. Four-star recruit Shaun Nixon could help out, too, once he arrives on campus.

8. Texas Tech (6): The Red Raiders dropped two spots, largely because returning starter Kenny Williams played outside linebacker all spring and could remain there for good. But even if Williams becomes a full-time linebacker, Tech still could be solid at running back with veteran DeAndre Washington, sophomore Quinton White and incoming four-star freshman Justin Stockton, whom the Texas Tech coaching staff is very high on. Head coach and offensive play-caller Kliff Kingsbury wouldn’t have given Williams the go-ahead to move to defense if he didn’t feel optimistic about what remained in the backfield.

9. Kansas (9): Though they come in ninth here, running back could be a position of strength for the Jayhawks next season. Brandon Bourbon, the favorite to start, rushed for 96 yards on 12 carries in the spring game, but Taylor Cox (63 yards on 15 carries) and Darrian Miller (50 yards on seven carries) had nice outings, as well. The Jayhawks also will welcome De’Andre Mann, the nation’s fifth-best juco running back, in the summer, as well as four-star freshmen Traevohn Wrench and Corey Avery. Until they start winning more games, it’s difficult to give the Jayhawks the benefit of the doubt in these position rankings. But with this collection of runners, they might not miss All-Big 12 performer James Sims as much as first thought.

10. Kansas State (10): The spring brought little clarity about who John Hubert’s primary replacement will be. Jarvis Leverett and Charles Jones both ran hard in K-State’s spring game, though neither broke a run for longer than 11 yards. Meanwhile, DeMarcus Robinson, who has the most experience of the three, sat out the scrimmage with an injury. As a result, incoming freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns while averaging almost 9 yards per carry his final two years in high school, will have an opportunity to be a factor once he joins the team this summer.

Big 12 spring stars, Part 2

April, 25, 2014
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Spring football is coming to a close in the Big 12, with several players making a move in their respective programs and securing or improving their roles on the team. We reviewed the Big 12’s stars of the spring by taking a closer look at their pre-spring roles, spring performance and potential roles this fall. The two-day review began with Part 1 on Thursday.

Running back/receiver Tyreek Hill, Oklahoma State

Pre-spring role: While it was unclear what role Hill would play in the Cowboys’ offensive attack, one thing was certain: He had elite track speed.

What he did this spring: Hill showed he can do a variety of different things in Oklahoma State's system, from taking straight handoffs as a running back to making plays on the perimeter as a receiver. He showed he doesn’t just have speed, he has big-play ability and the potential to change games in one play this fall.

What his role could be this fall: Ideally, Hill will take on a Tavon Austin or Percy Harvin-type role for the Cowboys, with Oklahoma State using him in a variety of ways to take advantage of the weakness of the defense they’re facing that weekend. Hill should be one of the main threats in the Oklahoma State offense in 2014.

Quotable: “He has, obviously, that God-given speed that we all see, but he also has a hunger deep inside. You don’t know about that until you get to know somebody and get around them and get 15 practices in. It’s good to see his hunger and drive inside.” - Oklahoma State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich

[+] EnlargeJohnson
AP Photo/LM OteroMarcus Johnson showed big-play ability this spring for Texas.
Receiver Marcus Johnson, Texas

Pre-spring role: Johnson was expected to be one of several receivers competing to replace Mike Davis as a main target in Texas' offense after recording 22 receptions for 350 yards and two touchdowns as a sophomore.

What he did this spring: Johnson had a terrific spring, showing he has the ability to make plays during scrimmages and competitive spring drills. The junior has the speed to test defenses and showed it during his first opportunity to impress Charlie Strong and the new coaching staff.

What his role could be this fall: Johnson could end up being the man to replace Davis alongside Jaxon Shipley. The Longhorns need a No. 2 receiver to emerge, and Johnson could be the guy if he becomes more consistent on a weekly basis.

Quotable: “Marcus is a big-play player. I mean, he has got great speed, he is assignment-sound, he has played a lot of football, so he has got a real good feel for the game. He is a great fit in what we do and he has had a great spring for us. He has played really well.” - Texas offensive coordinator Shawn Watson

Safety Kenny Iloka, TCU

Pre-spring role: A newcomer who arrived from the junior college ranks during January, Iloka was signed to provide depth and versatility in TCU’s secondary.

What he did this spring: Iloka staked his claim to a role in TCU’s defense despite several experienced safeties returning, including Sam Carter. Iloka, the younger brother of Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka, stepped on campus as a ready-made impact player with his willingness to set a physical tone in the secondary.

What his role could be this fall: TCU returned three safeties who started games in 2013, but Iloka looks like he will make an immediate impact, even if he doesn’t force his way into the starting lineup.

Quotable: “Kenny had a heck of a spring; he really adds to the depth. He’s going to be an exceptional safety for us.” - TCU defensive coordinator Dick Bumpus

[+] EnlargeJakeem Grant
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsJakeem Grant scored seven TDs last season and is poised to improve on that in 2014.
Receiver Jakeem Grant, Texas Tech

Pre-spring role: Grant was a playmaker for Texas Tech during his sophomore season, but the Red Raiders are searching for a even bigger impact from the junior in 2014.

What he did this spring: Grant looks ready to handle being the focus of an opposing defense. His speed and quickness are a handful, but he’s starting to develop into a legitimate receiving threat as opposed to a change-of-pace kind of offensive weapon.

What his role could be this fall: Grant, if he continues developing, could become one of the Big 12’s top receivers and the centerpiece of the Red Raiders' offense, replacing Jace Amaro as a matchup nightmare for Big 12 defenses.

Quotable: “He made some big plays last year, but really had a big spring for us. He’s developed on and off the field and, academically, he’s much improved. On the field, his consistency as a receiver and his work ethic is night and day from last year.” - Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury.

Running back Dustin Garrison, West Virginia

Pre-spring role: Garrison was a relative afterthought at the position with Andrew Buie’s return and the addition of Rushel Shell.

What he did this spring: Garrison reminded people that he led the Mountaineers in rushing in 2011 with a strong spring showing. Injuries hampered his production during the past two seasons, but his direct running style and competitive nature was on full display through during the 15 spring practices.

What his role could be this fall: He might have earned himself some carries this fall even though West Virginia goes four or five deep at running back. His emergence could allow West Virginia to get creative with its use of sophomore Wendall Smallwood.

Quotable: "I thought Garrison had a really good scrimmage. He showed up. He was a guy that stuck out." WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson told The Charleston Gazette after a two-touchdown performance by Garrison in a spring scrimmage.

Spring game preview: West Virginia

April, 11, 2014
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West Virginia finishes its spring practice schedule with the annual Gold-Blue spring football game this weekend. Here's what you need to know:

When: 1 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: Milan Puskar Stadium, Morgantown, W.Va.

What to watch for:
  • The quarterback battle: This is Paul Millard's chance to make his case for why he should be West Virginia's starting quarterback. The senior appeared in seven games last season and has earned good reviews so far in spring ball with Clint Trickett sidelined. The challenger here is Skyler Howard, an undersized (6-foot, 200 pounds) passer who showed off a big arm and scrambling ability at the junior college level but had some ups and downs this spring. He's still learning the offense and needs to show progress.
  • New-look defense? When Tony Gibson took over as defensive coordinator this offseason, he vowed he wouldn't make too many changes because his players needed continuity. He is, after all, their fourth defensive coordinator in four years. But how does the promoted safeties coach plan to upgrade a WVU defense that ranked 99th in FBS in scoring defense and 101st in total defense last year? Expect to see some 3-3-5 and 3-4 fronts on Saturday and a major emphasis on getting defenders in the backfield. Gibson and Dana Holgorsen want a simplified scheme that lets their defenders play fast, and that concept will be put to the test.
  • Meet the rushers: The battle to replace Charles Sims won't be won by just one person; that much seems certain. West Virginia has a stable of running backs who bring intriguing possibilities for this offense, and the Gold-Blue Game should offer a sample of what's to come. Dreamius Smith proved plenty in his debut season last season, but technically he's not even the most experienced back. That would be junior Andrew Buie, an 850-yard rusher in 2012 who took off the fall semester and redshirted last season. Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison can be difference-makers, and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell could be the most talented member of the bunch. Let's see which ones make a statement on Saturday.
  • Worley on the rise: One of the best defensive backs whom nobody is talking about in the Big 12 has to be Daryl Worley, who survived playing on an island last season as a freshman. In this league, if you can keep up with these offenses in your rookie season, you've got a bright future. West Virginia coaches have praised Worley as easily one of their best defenders, even as he's been on campus for less than a year, and much will be expected of him in 2014. On a defense that will have to get takeaways to stay competitive, Worley will be a weapon.
  • O-line depth: WVU is pretty set at offensive guard, but the tackles are a bit of a question mark. Marquis Lucas and Adam Pankey are the favorites to land those jobs at the moment, and there are several options behind them, but the depth is an issue that will be tested Saturday. All any coach wants from a spring game is zero injuries, and any hits to this offensive line would cause some real problems and more shifting around.
Even with All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims moving on to the NFL, West Virginia still has an abundance of riches at running back.

Dreamius Smith was the No. 1 juco back in the country last year, and finished second on the team in rushing.

And despite Sims and Smith manning the backfield, Wendell Smallwood still carved out time as a true freshman due to his versatile playmaking.

The Mountaineers have also added high-profile transfer Rushel Shell, who was once the No. 3 running back recruit in the country.

On top of all that, West Virginia also welcomed back the leading rusher from 2012 in Andrew Buie, who spent last fall away from the team.

[+] EnlargeDustin Garrison
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsDustin Garrison had a big day in the Mountaineers' open scrimmage.
But there’s another contender for carries in this logjam of a backfield that shouldn’t be discounted. And that’s Dustin Garrison, who stole the show Saturday during the Mountaineers’ open scrimmage in Charleston, W.Va.

Before an estimated crowd of 6,000, Garrison turned heads, scoring two of the offense’s four touchdowns. Garrison also rushed for 39 yards on nine carries and caught two passes for 16 yards.

It wasn’t the numbers, however, that impressed. It was the way Garrison ran.

“I thought Garrison had a really good scrimmage,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson told reporters afterward. “He definitely showed up. He was a guy that stood out. I thought he was extremely positive.”

Saturday wasn’t the first time Garrison has stood out.

As a freshman in 2011, he led the Mountaineers with 742 yards on the ground while averaging 5.5 yards per carry. That season against Bowling Green, Garrison went completely off, rushing for 291 yards, which is the third-highest total in school history.

But in a practice leading up to the Orange Bowl that year, Garrison tore his ACL. He struggled to regain his form the following season, and lost the job to Buie. Then last year, he pulled his hamstring early in the season and wound up redshirting.

This spring, however, there have been signs Garrison is finally returning to the player he was in his first year. Saturday was the biggest sign yet.

“I feel like I did my freshman year, with my knee and my hamstring. Those injuries nicked me up,” said Garrison, who at only 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, relies heavily on his quickness and speed. “Right now, I have no complaints. My body is feeling good, and I have a lot to play for.”

If he runs and catches and blocks like he did in the scrimmage, the Mountaineers might have to find a way to get Garrison the ball, which won’t be a cinch.

After dropping 15 pounds during the offseason to improve his breakaway speed, Smith too has enjoyed a solid spring.

Though he’s still learning coach Dana Holgorsen’s system and shaking off the rust from sitting out last season, Shell’s talent and power between the tackles is undeniable.

And Smallwood actually led all West Virginia runners in the scrimmage with 55 yards rushing on just six carries.

But Garrison is unexpectedly, but doggedly, showing he too could be a factor in the West Virginia attack once again.

"Dustin can play when he plays like that and people have seen,” Dawson said. “That was really good to see that kid come out and play the way he did. … I thought it was extremely positive.”
This week, we're featuring five Big 12 players on the spot this spring. Maybe they're coming back from injury. Maybe they have much to prove after a disappointing 2013 season. Maybe they're embroiled in a key position battle. Whatever the case, this spring is big for them.

Today's player on the spot: West Virginia running back Dreamius Smith

When Smith first committed to West Virginia, it looked as if he had a clear path to playing time in Morgantown. Smith was the No. 1 juco running back in the country, and Andrew Buie was his only apparent competition for the position.

But Charles Sims transferred in from Houston last summer and took over the starting job. Smith had to settle for a backup role.

[+] EnlargeDreamius Smith
Dan Friend/USA TODAY SportsDreamius Smith rushed for 494 yards and five touchdowns in 2013.
This spring, Sims is gone. However, Smith has much to prove going into his senior season because of the arrival of another high-profile transfer.

Rushel Shell, who transferred from Pittsburgh, was the No. 3 running back from the Class of 2012. He broke the Pennsylvania high school rushing record before signing with the Panthers. And after sitting out last season, Shell already has begun to turn heads this spring.

That’s why Smith is one of our players on the spot this spring. He started out the spring atop the depth chart. But to stay there, he’ll have to perform at a high level to fend off Shell, among several others.

"We're deep,” Smith told reporters earlier this spring. “Wendell [Smallwood] is a speed back who can catch the ball and line up at receiver. Rushel Shell is a power back that has some speed. Dustin Garrison and Buie are guys that everyone has seen play before.

"Every rep counts. There are five quality guys competing right now, and that's how the coaches will decide who gets to play. I have to go as hard as I can."

Smith performed at a high level at times last season. He scored West Virginia’s only touchdown against Oklahoma on Sept. 7 on a bulldozing, 76-yard touchdown run. On Oct. 19, he rushed for 89 yards and two touchdowns in a loss to Texas Tech.

But in the second half of the season, his production declined. So did his carries, as Smallwood emerged as an alternative as a backup to Sims.

“Dreamius played Texas Tech, and he was coming along. Then we had Kansas State, and he probably played the worst game he has ever played [seven carries for 23 yards],” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said at the advent of West Virginia’s first spring practice. “If you're going to go that way, well, guess what, now you push more carries to the guy you trust. That got Dreamius to come around and realize that, ‘Hey man, I've only got so many years to do this so I've got to go.’”

Smith apparently has put in the work this offseason. He’s slimmed down 15 pounds to improve his breakaway speed and has done it without losing his tackle-breaking strength.

He’s also been focused on refining his pass blocking, which was an Achilles heel last season that cost him time on the field.

“Pass blocking was one of my weaknesses last year, and I know coming in this year, that’s a thing I’ve gotten better at,” Smith said. “I’m just going to use that and translate that to the field and just play my game.”

When on his game, Smith has the talent to be one of the Big 12’s best running backs. But whether he gets the chance to showcase that next season will hinge heavily on what he shows this spring.
West Virginia opened spring ball last weekend, looking to bounce back from a disappointing season. Here’s what to look for from the Mountaineers during their spring practices:

Offensive returner ready to take next step: Going into November last year, Mario Alford had only nine catches, but in his final four games he racked up 18 receptions for a staggering 450 receiving yards and two touchdowns. As a result, he finished second in the league with an average of 20.4 yards per reception. Alford, who was the No. 1 juco athlete in the country last winter, finally seemed to get comfortable in Dana Holgorsen’s offense late in the season. The tools were always there. And if Alford plays like he did last November, he could be in for a huge 2014 campaign.

Defensive returner ready to take the next step: Two years ago, Karl Joseph was West Virginia’s best defensive player as a true freshman safety. With 68 tackles and a team-high four fumble recoveries, Joseph didn’t have a poor sophomore season. But he didn’t turn heads the way he did as a freshman, either. For the West Virginia defense to get over the hump, Joseph needs to be an all-conference performer. He has the talent to get there. And with two years in the starting lineup, the experience to get there, as well.

Redshirt freshman to watch: The answer here would have been wide receiver Shelton Gibson, but he won’t be joining the team in an official capacity until the summer. With Gibson out, the West Virginia redshirt freshman to watch is offensive tackle Marcell Lazard. The former four-star recruit signed with the Mountaineers over Ohio State, Michigan and Florida, and will have a chance to compete for time at a position that is wide open with the graduations of Curtis Feigt and Nick Kindler. Lazard is currently listed as second team at right tackle behind Marquis Lucas, but he’ll have a chance to show what he can do this spring.

[+] EnlargeDreamius Smith
Dan Friend/USA TODAY SportsDreamius Smith is just one of many WVU RBs fighting for carries in what will be a big spring battle.
Most significant position battle: Since the QB battle is unlikely to be resolved until the fall, the running back competition will be the most compelling of the spring. Even with Charles Sims gone, the Mountaineers have several intriguing options at the position, and only so many carries to go around. Dreamius Smith opened the spring atop the depth chart after rushing for almost 500 yards last season. But he’ll have company. Wendell Smallwood took carries away from Smith in the backup role late in the year, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry. Then there’s Rushel Shell, who transferred in from Pittsburgh last year. He set a Pennsylvania high school rushing record and was one of the most sought-after running backs in the 2012 recruiting class. Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, who rejoined the team after leaving last preseason, have experience as West Virginia’s primary ball carriers. The competition for touches figures to be fierce at this position this spring.

Key midterm enrollee: It’s no secret the West Virginia QB spot is there for the taking, and Skyler Howard will have every opportunity to gain ground in the competition with incumbent starter Clint Trickett out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery. Howard was the No. 3 juco QB recruit in the country, and while he doesn’t have prototypical size (6 feet, 205 pounds), he had a productive year at Riverside City (Calif.) College throwing for 3,151 yards and 33 touchdowns. With a banner spring, he has a chance of leading the West Virginia offense onto the field against Alabama in the opener in Atlanta.

Question that could be answered: Whether Shell will be ready to help this offense. Shell had some question marks when he transferred to West Virginia. He had had been suspended during his one season at Pitt, and after leaving the team, was not welcomed back. Shell also showed up in Morgantown out of shape. There’s no denying Shell’s talent, though. And this spring, the Mountaineers will get to see what they have in Shell both physically and mentally, and whether they’ll have a running back ready to make a big impact in the fall.

Question that won’t be answered until fall: Who will play quarterback? Trickett won’t be able to compete for his job this spring; Howard is acclimating to the offense and playing at the FBS level; Millard is spending time on the baseball diamond; and four-star freshman William Crest won’t arrive until the summer. The Mountaineers will get a better feel for the position this spring, particularly with Howard. But this is a competition that will linger well into August.
West Virginia is losing a probable NFL draft pick in running back Charles Sims. Yet the Mountaineers might not see much of a drop-off with a talented group ready to battle for carries in the backfield.

Departed: Sims. In his lone season in Morgantown, W.Va., after transferring from Houston, Sims finished with 208 carries for 1,095 yards and 14 total touchdowns. His 45 receptions for 401 yards led all Big 12 running backs and ranked No. 8 nationally. His versatility, consistency and overall production will be tough to replace.

[+] EnlargeRushel Shell
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsTransfer Rushel Shell rushed for 641 yards at Pittsburgh in 2012.
Spring contenders: Junior Dustin Garrison, junior Andrew Buie, sophomore Wendell Smallwood, senior Dreamius Smith and sophomore Rushel Shell.

Summer contenders: Donte Thomas-Williams, who was ranked No. 138 in the 2014 ESPN 300.

The skinny: It could be the most interesting position battle in the Big 12 this spring with so many highly regarded talents angling for one spot.

Smith looked like a play-making running back at times then looked average at other times. His talent was on display in 2013 but overall consistency was lacking. It’s his final chance to show what he can do.

Smallwood was one of the Mountaineers’ most improved players down the stretch during his true freshman season. The fact he earned the trust of WVU running backs coach Jajuan Seider during his first collegiate campaign should not be overlooked.

Shell, a highly regarded transfer from Pittsburgh, brings experience and a physical running style to the Mountaineers' backfield. He could be tough to keep off the field.

Buie, the Mountaineers’ leading rusher in 2012, faces a long road to regaining his reputation after leaving the team just before the 2013 season. But Buie appears to have returned to the program with renewed focus and, as an experienced playmaker, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him climb back up the depth chart.

Injuries have hampered Garrison for the past two seasons, but he started eight games as a freshman, so he brings experience to the table if he can shake off the injury bug.

Thomas-Williams will enter the mix during the summer and has a combination of power and playmaking that could help him make an immediate impact.

Prediction: As many as four of these running backs carve themselves a role in the Mountaineers’ attack this season. There’s a bunch of talent on the roster, and coach Dana Holgorsen will be willing to find a spot for any running back who proves he can make plays. Fitting each running back’s role to his strengths would allow fresh legs to handle different roles while the overall competition for carries would keep rolling throughout the year. The only major surprise would be if one guy takes over to handle every role, becoming an every-down back who stays in the game in short yardage and third-down situations.
With spring practice off and rolling, plenty of questions surround the league’s programs. And while many of those won’t be fully answered until the season begins in the fall, here are some of the biggest ones Oklahoma State, TCU, Texas, Texas Tech and West Virginia will face this spring:

Can freshman impact OSU's QB race?

Junior quarterback J.W. Walsh has made eight starts for the Cowboys over the last two seasons. But even with Clint Chelf now gone, Walsh still will have to fight for a job with freshman Mason Rudolph already on campus. Rudolph, who enrolled early to participate in spring ball, threw for more than 4,300 yards and 64 touchdowns his final year of high school and is one of the most highly-touted quarterback recruits ever to sign with the Cowboys. In high school, Rudolph played in an offensive scheme similar to Oklahoma State’s, which is what first interested him in the Cowboys. That should ease his transition to the college level. Of course for now, the job is Walsh’s to lose. But Rudolph has the talent and the skill set to begin applying pressure on Walsh as soon as this spring.

How will TCU adapt to the offensive overhaul?

TCU conducted its first spring practice over the weekend, and the exit polls suggested the Horned Frogs went through offensive drills fast. Like really fast. Tired of ranking near the bottom of the Big 12 in offense, Gary Patterson shook up his coaching staff and brought in Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham to install an up-tempo offensive system that resembled those of Texas Tech (Cumbie) and Oklahoma State (Meacham). As Patterson admitted after the first practice, there will be a learning curve for his players to picking up this new offensive style. But the quicker quarterback Trevone Boykin can adapt, the better off TCU will be going into 2014.

How will Texas look different under Strong?

The last time Texas had a coach other than Mack Brown running a spring practice, Bill Clinton was still president. The Charlie Strong era will begin in earnest with the start of spring practice in Austin. How will the players adjust to the new schemes of assistants Shawn Watson, Joe Wickline and Vance Bedford? How will the veterans react to their new position coaches? Who will thrive with the new staff? Who will falter? Those pivotal questions will begin to be answered this spring.

Can Texas Tech get by with only one scholarship QB?

With starting right tackle Rashad Fortenberry getting an extra year of eligibility over the weekend, the Red Raiders seem to be in good shape across the board offensively. Of course, that could change real quick should QB Davis Webb incur any kind of injury this spring. With Baker Mayfield at Oklahoma and Michael Brewer headed to Virginia Tech, the Red Raiders will be down to just one scholarship quarterback until Patrick Mahomes arrives in the summer. Though coach Kliff Kingsbury has said that Tech has a couple of capable walk-ons, an injury to Webb would hamper the spring development of an offense that will have big goals in the fall. Coming off a breakout performance in the bowl game, Webb also needs to continue developing this spring. But he also needs to remain healthy for the betterment of himself and the team.

Who will get carries for West Virginia?

Even with Charles Sims gone, the Mountaineers still enjoy a stable of capable of running backs. But where will Sims’ carries go? After rushing for 494 yards last season, Dreamius Smith is starting out the spring atop the depth chart. But he’ll have to fend off several comers to remain there. Wendell Smallwood came on strong late during his freshman season and finished the year averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Rushel Shell also joins the fray this spring after transferring over from Pittsburgh. Shell, who set a Pennsylvania high school rushing record, was formerly the No. 26 overall recruit in the 2012 recruiting class. There are still others. Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie are still around after leading the Mountaineers’ in rushing in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Oh yeah, West Virginia will also add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams in the summer. Good luck to the running back who dares to take a play off in this crammed competition.

Big 12 pre-spring breakdown: RBs

February, 19, 2014
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As we wait for the start of spring ball, we're examining and ranking the positional situations of every team, continuing Wednesday with running backs. Some of these outlooks will look different after the spring. But here’s how they compare at the moment:

1. Texas: The three-headed monster of Johnathan Gray, Malcolm Brown and Joe Bergeron gives Texas the best 1-2-3 punch in the league. Whether this group goes from good to great hinges on a healthy return for Gray, who is coming back from an Achilles injury and will sit out spring drills. Either way, this will be the backbone of Charlie Strong’s first offense.

[+] EnlargeShock Linwood
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsShock Linwood showed breakaway ability as a Baylor reserve in 2013.
2. Baylor: Shock Linwood takes over in the backfield after a dynamic freshman season in which he finished seventh in the league in rushing despite being a third-team running back. The competition for carries after Linwood will be interesting. Devin Chafin is the favorite to be Linwood’s wing man, but he could be pressed by Johnny Jefferson and/or incoming four-star freshman Terence Williams, who is already on campus.

3. Oklahoma: The potential of this running back crop has no bounds. But it will be young and inexperienced after seniors Brennan Clay, Roy Finch and Damien Williams (until he was kicked off the team) hoarded the carries last season. Keith Ford, who was the nation’s No. 3 running back recruit in the 2013 class, will take over the starting role. Joe Mixon, this year’s No. 6 RB recruit, won’t get to Norman until the summer, but he should supply the lightning to Ford’s thunder. Alex Ross, who was the nation’s No. 7 RB recruit in the 2012 class, rounds out a fearsome threesome with tremendous pedigree.

4. West Virginia: The Mountaineers lose All-Big 12 performer Charles Sims, but still claim a glut of capable rushers. Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood thrived playing behind Sims last year. West Virginia also has Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, its leading rushers from 2011 and 2012, respectively. (Buie is back after leaving school for a semester.) On top of all that, Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell figures to be in the mix. Shell was the No. 26 overall recruit in the country coming out of high school after becoming the all-time leading rusher in Pennsylvania high school history. If that weren’t enough, the gem of the incoming recruiting class, Donte Thomas-Williams, is also a running back. Suffice to say, the competition for carries will be fierce in the league’s deepest backfield.

5. Oklahoma State: Desmond Roland helped fuel Oklahoma State’s midseason turnaround after seizing a starting role. Roland was great in short yardage and led the Big 12 with 13 touchdowns, but he wasn’t a big-play runner, with an average of only 4.6 yards per carry (14th in the league). The Cowboys are banking that Rennie Childs can complement Roland as the breakaway back. Childs showed flashes as a true freshman. Roland and Childs can form a solid combo, but four-star freshman Devon Thomas, who is enrolled for the spring, should not be discounted, nor should Sione Palelei, who has the good hands that past Oklahoma State running backs also possessed.

6. Texas Tech: The returning duo of Kenny Williams and DeAndre Washington won’t do much damage between the tackles. Both, however, are excellent pass-catchers, making them supreme fits for Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Together they combined for 64 receptions, and that number should go up in 2014 as quarterback Davis Webb settles in as a sophomore.

7. TCU: The Horned Frogs were a disaster offensively last year, but the potential at running back is a reason why TCU could be equipped for a bounce-back season. Aaron Green, Kyle Hicks and incoming freshman Shaun Nixon were all ESPN 300 recruits. That doesn’t include B.J. Catalon, either, who led the Frogs with 569 yards and six touchdowns last season. With a new regime making the play calls, there’s reason to believe this could become one of the better units in the league.

[+] EnlargeDalton Santos
David Purdy/Getty ImagesIf Aaron Wimberly can stay healthy, Iowa State has a potentially dynamic returning running back.
8. Iowa State: When healthy, Aaron Wimberly can be a game-breaker. He torched Texas for 137 yards as the Cyclones nearly pulled off a Thursday night upset. Wimberly, however, was never really healthy the rest of the season, and never had the same impact. After Wimberly, though, the Cyclones don’t have much returning firepower. Firepower, however, could be on the way. Oklahoma native Michael Warren went overlooked in recruiting, but he can fly; he rushed for more than 2,500 yards as a high school senior.

9. Kansas: The Jayhawks gradated their heart and soul in James Sims, who was an all-conference selection even though Kansas won only one Big 12 game. Tony Pierson returns as an electric playmaker, but he has never been a full-time running back, often flexing out as a receiver. It will be interesting to see who emerges in Sims’ shoes. Brandon Bourbon (191 yards) will have the first crack in the spring, but newcomers De'Andre Mann and Traevohn Wrench could vie for time once they arrive in the summer.

10. Kansas State: It’s difficult to believe K-State will be at the bottom here once the season starts, but running back is a major hole for the Wildcats going into the spring. That’s because longtime starter John Hubert is gone. Hubert, senior backup Robert Rose and QBs Jake Waters and Daniel Sams combined for 492 carries last season. Nobody else had more than five. Rising senior DeMarcus Robinson, who has only 11 career carries, will probably be atop the depth chart going into the spring. It’s also possible that Sams will get a look at running back with Waters having nailed down the full-time QB job. But the player to watch here is freshman Dalvin Warmack, who rushed for more than 4,500 yards and 70 touchdowns his final two seasons in Blue Springs, Mo. Warmack isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds. But his size fits the mold of past K-State running backs Hubert and Darren Sproles.

West Virginia season preview

August, 7, 2013
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Today we kick off the Big 12 preview by examining West Virginia, which aims to surprise after a disappointing Big 12 debut.

WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS

Coach: Dana Holgorsen (17-9 overall, two seasons; 17-9 at West Virginia, first season)

2012 record: 7-6 (4-5 Big 12)

[+] EnlargeAndrew Buie, Kenny Vaccaro
Tim Heitman/US PresswireLast season's leading rusher Andrew Buie returns to bolster a solid Mountaineers backfield.
Key losses: QB Geno Smith, RB/WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, C Joe Madsen, LB Terence Garvin

Key returnees: RB Andrew Buie, OT Quinton Spain, DE Will Clarke, LB Isaiah Bruce, S Karl Joseph

Newcomer to watch: Who knows if Charles Sims will replace Tavon Austin as West Virginia’s primary playmaker? But the transfer from Houston will definitely help. Sims, who played for Holgorsen at Houston in 2009, totaled more than 800 yards rushing for the Cougars the past two seasons.

Biggest games in 2013: West Virginia’s September schedule is unforgiving. The Mountaineers go to Oklahoma, face rival Maryland in Baltimore two weeks later, then host Oklahoma State. A road trip to Baylor also looms Oct. 5. How West Virginia fares in those four games will be a harbinger for the rest of the season.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Despite losing Austin and Stedman Bailey to the St. Louis Rams, West Virginia still has playmakers at the skill positions. But the question of who will be getting them the ball remains.

The Mountaineers have enjoyed smooth transitions at quarterback since 2005, when Pat White won the job midway through the season. For the first time since, they have a true competition at the position with junior Paul Millard, redshirt freshman Ford Childress and Florida State transfer Clint Trickett all battling to replace three-year starter Geno Smith.

Until Holgorsen names a starter, this battle will command most of the attention in Morgantown this preseason.

Forecast: It’s difficult to remember now, but at one point last season West Virginia looked like a national title contender. Then, well, the wheels came off.

These Mountaineers won’t have the star power they did last season with Smith, Austin and Bailey. But Holgorsen believes -- top to bottom -- this team will be deeper.

Nowhere is West Virginia deeper than at running back. In fact, the backfield will include the Mountaineers’ 2011 leading rusher (Dustin Garrison), their 2012 leading rusher (Andrew Buie), the No. 1 incoming junior college running back (Dreamius Smith) and Sims. If the Mountaineers can get solid quarterback play, too, they should be explosive once again in Holgorsen’s offensive scheme.

None of that will matter much, however, if West Virginia can’t improve upon a defense that ranked near the bottom of college football last season. The Mountaineers were abysmal slowing down opponents, surrendering at least 38 points in eight different games.

There’s reason to believe, however, West Virginia could be better under first-year coordinator Keith Patterson.

The defense returns seven starters, notably rising sophomores Karl Joseph and Isaiah Bruce, who were West Virginia's best defensive players as freshmen. Joseph, a safety, led the team with 104 tackles last year, and will anchor the defensive backfield again. If Patterson can pair him and veteran safety Darwin Cook with reliable cornerback play, the secondary -- which got torched in 2012 -- has a chance to be solid.

In the front seven, the Mountaineers will be counting on Bruce to elevate his game, as well, at inside linebacker in Patterson's 3-4 scheme. Bruce, who finished second only to Joseph in tackles, also has the ability to be an All-Big 12 performer.

Withstanding a brutal start to the schedule will ultimately determine whether the Mountaineers go bowling in a transition year. But if West Virginia can survive past early October, someone settles in at quarterback and its young defenders take the next step, the Mountaineers could be better than last season. Even minus the star power.
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."

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