Spring primer: West Virginia Mountaineers

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.

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.