NCF Nation: Jeff Mullen
1. Pressure Russell Wilson: Well, sure, you always want to get pressure on the opposing quarterback. But that's an even more important goal against Wilson, who is responsible for so much of what the Wolfpack does offensively. West Virginia will be playing without top cornerback Brandon Hogan, so if Wilson has time to scan the field, he could pick on replacement Pat Miller. Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 scheme has been great at disguising coverages and confusing quarterbacks with blitzes from varying angles. Wilson has been more prone to mistakes this year than previous seasons, throwing eight interceptions in NC State's four losses. When the Mountaineers get near him, though, they can't let him break contain or he can burn them with his running ability.
2. Let it fly: This is the final game at West Virginia for offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, who will be replaced next week by Dana Holgorsen. It will also be the last game for Bill Stewart before his lame-duck year begins. So what's there to lose? The Mountaineers should be aggressive on offense, and go for whatever Mullen has left in the playbook. NC State is solid against the run, and Noel Devine probably still won't be his usual explosive self. But quarterback Geno Smith has been terrific during the current four-game winning streak, throwing eight touchdown passes and just one interception. Don't be afraid to put the game in his hands.
3. Limit turnovers: Another no-brainer for any team, but this is one stat that usually tells the tale for the Mountaineers. They committed eight in their three losses this season compared to 15 in their nine wins. Ball-carriers like Ryan Clarke have had trouble with costly fumbles in big games. If West Virginia plays a clean game against NC State, it should have an excellent chance to win its third bowl game under Stewart.
"I think the transition year for coach Holgorsen will be very beneficial to the football program, and the opportunity to learn from coach Bill Stewart should not be underestimated,” athletic director Oliver Luck said in the statement. “Coach Holgorsen is one of the top coaches in college football. His success at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State speaks for itself. We know that coach Holgorsen will bring a high-powered offense that will be incredibly entertaining to watch at Milan Puskar Stadium.
“He will also provide a lot of energy and enthusiasm to our team as well as a wealth of experience. He has served under some fantastic mentors over the years, guys such as Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and Kevin Sumlin. I look forward to coach Holgorsen joining us. I cannot imagine a better combination of offensive and defensive coordinators in Dana Holgorsen and Jeff Casteel working for coach Stewart. Mountaineer football is in the best of hands."
Luck thanked Stewart for his work and said the Mountaineers "have enjoyed his steady leadership and infectious personality."
Holgorsen said his goal was to win a national championship at West Virginia. He will make $800,000 as offensive coordinator in 2011 and then $1.4 million as head coach.
Here is what Stewart had to say in the official release:
“I am proud of what we have accomplished in the last three years, culminating with a Big East championship this season. I took over as head coach in a very challenging time, and we have faced every obstacle with a passion to bring nothing but the best to West Virginia football.
“Our success on the field, in the classroom and in making our players better young men is very satisfying to me. I will continue to devote my entire energy to this program and my players next year. I look forward to having Coach Holgorsen join our staff and working with him to ensure a smooth transition in 2012."
I'll have some thoughts and reaction shortly ...
The slumping Mountaineers broke out for a 37-10 win over Cincinnati in a game that was never in doubt after early in the second quarter. Geno Smith had four touchdown passes, and the West Virginia defense and special teams came up with four turnovers, plus a safety, to put the Bearcats away.
West Virginia is now bowl eligible along with South Florida, and the Mountaineers can still be a major factor in the Big East race, especially if they play like this on offense every week. Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen can breathe easy for a week.
It was the third straight loss for Cincinnati, which now has to win its final three just to finish 6-6 and be in consideration for a bowl. Unless things change dramatically, the Bearcats are going to be home for the holidays after winning two straight league titles.
3. Cincinnati is in deep trouble: Bill Stewart's shoes might be the only ones Butch Jones wouldn't trade places with right now. The first-year Bearcats coach has taken a two-time BCS team and guided it to a 3-5 record. Cincinnati isn't going bowling unless it wins at least three of its last four games, and those include a trip to West Virginia and a visit from Pitt. Jones has been dealt all kinds of adversity this year, with Zach Collaros' injury being just the latest. We'll see how forgiving the nouveau riche Cincinnati fans are.
4. Syracuse could go to a big bowl: Orange fans were mainly hoping to attain bowl eligibility and get an invite to the Beef O'Brady's or Pinstripe bowls. But now they can aim higher. Syracuse still needs one more win to be eligible because of its two FCS victories, but with a very manageable schedule the rest of the way (Louisville, UConn, at Rutgers and Boston College), there's no reason the team can't get to eight or nine wins or beyond. And given the dreadful state of the league, a trip to the Champs Sports or Meineke Car Care bowls -- which qualify as big ones in this conference -- isn't out of the question. Heck, the league title isn't off the table, either.
5. UConn isn't finished yet: While much of the storyline of Friday's game centered around West Virginia's problems, don't forget the winning team. The Huskies looked like toast after starting off 0-2 in the league and getting shut out by Louisville. They showed a lot of character in bouncing back, rallying from a 10-point deficit and finally overcoming their Big East nemesis. Zach Frazer was back at quarterback, and while he wasn't spectacular, he didn't turn the ball over. People who were calling for Randy Edsall's firing were just plain foolish. It will take a near miraculous turn of events for UConn to get back into the Big East title picture, but the Huskies have a chance to go bowling now that they're back to .500
It did. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, what they're made of is not the stuff of Big East champions.
How else to explain a true head-scratcher of a 16-13 overtime loss at Connecticut? West Virginia outgained UConn 414 to 278, but lost four fumbles, including a crucial one on its lone overtime possession.
The Mountaineers raced out to a quick 10-0 lead, but that first quarter was the only time they'd score a touchdown. The defense, strong as always, allowed only 13 points in regulation, which should have been enough for an easy victory. But the offense once again struggled to find any kind of consistency or to hang onto the ball.
I've defended Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen as much as anybody, but it's hard to see how that combo can remain intact after this latest fiasco. West Virginia has way too much talent to have lost in consecutive weeks to Syracuse and Connecticut. That's the bottom line, and it's a failure that has to rest at the feet of the coaches right now. The Mountaineers will do no better than 9-3 in the regular season when they made a 10-win season their goal, and a Big East title now looks much more difficult to attain.
Let's not forget to give some credit to Connecticut, which started 0-2 in Big East play and had a true rally-the-troops kind of moment. That the Huskies could come back from a 10-0 deficit and beat West Virginia for the first time ever, especially after how lethargic and listless they looked last week in a 26-0 loss at Louisville, is truly amazing. They are still a long ways from getting back into the Big East race, but this win helps a lot in their quest to get back to a bowl game.
I guess it's just that kind of year in the Big East. Every week is going to be unpredictable. West Virginia shouldn't be this unpredictable, but we found out that the Mountaineers just aren't at the level we thought they'd reach this year.
On to more trivial matters, as we review the games and action from the week.
Team of the week: Pittsburgh. The Panthers haven't had much reason to celebrate this season, but a 31-point road win against a Syracuse team that was jacked up on confidence will do the trick. Pitt fumbled away its nonconference opportunities, but it would be foolish to count this team out of the Big East race.
Biggest play: Robert Sands' interception of South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels in the final minute before halftime of West Virginia's 20-6 win on Thursday. The pick set up a Mountaineers' score right before intermission to make it 17-3 and put the game on ice. Lesson to USF coach Skip Holtz: Never let Daniels pass near the end of the half while in his own territory. That proved disastrous against both Florida and West Virginia.
Best call: The touchdown set up by the Sands play was an exciting hook-and-ladder pass that Jock Sanders lateraled to Noel Devine. Gotta give credit to Bill Stewart and Jeff Mullen for that, especially after criticizing them for the double-pass play that failed against Maryland. But, actually, my award for best call involves the first West Virginia touchdown. The Mountaineers had their big-back look with Ryan Clarke and a fullback in the I, but Geno Smith faked the handoff and found a wide open Brad Starks for a 31-yard strike. West Virginia hadn't passed much out of that formation, and it clearly caught USF off guard.
Big Man on Campus (Offense): Cincinnati receiver Armon Binns had eight catches for 175 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-clinching 62-yard score in the fourth quarter. Good to see Binns have a monster game after he'd been relatively quiet much of the year.
Big Man on Campus (Defense): West Virginia cornerback Keith Tandy was burned repeatedly in last year's game against South Florida. On Thursday, he had 10 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble to prove he's no longer a weak link in the chain.
Big Man on Campus (Special teams): Pitt's Dan Hutchins averaged 50 yards on five punts and had two downed inside the 20. He also made his lone field-goal attempt, a 24-yarder.
Strangest moment: Rutgers seemingly had everything in place for a game-winning field-goal try against Army after rallying from a 17-3 deficit. Chas Dodd completed a pass to Mohamed Sanu at the Army 28 on first down. Then Dodd ran for a 2-yard loss, trying to get the ball to the middle of the field. Then Army called timeout, and Rutgers somehow got a delay of game penalty after that stoppage as Dodd couldn't find his helmet on the sideline.
Forced to run another play, Rutgers gave up a sack. And then Dodd threw an interception on fourth down, forcing overtime. Fortunately for the Scarlet Knights, they still went on to win.
"We fouled that thing up," head coach Greg Schiano said. "I've made a lot of really good, time-management decisions over 10 years, really good ones that have won games for us. That one could have lost the game for us. That's my job to take control, and that was a bonehead move by me."
Worst hangover: Syracuse. The Orange kicked away a lot of momentum and fan excitement by losing 45-14 at home to Pittsburgh on Saturday. They surely thought they had improved to the point where they wouldn't get blown out at home like that in a conference game. You could sense the resignation by the home fans, many of whom headed for the Carrier Dome exits midway through the third quarter.
Now let's look ahead to Week 8, the first week when all eight Big East teams are squaring off head-to-head in conference play (Games listed in descending order of importance/interest):
Rutgers (4-2, 1-0 Big East) at Pitt (3-3, 1-0): The only matchup featuring two teams with undefeated Big East records. Rutgers had owned this series until Pitt struck back last year. How will the Scarlet Knights react after the LeGrand injury? (ESPN3.com, Noon ET).
Connecticut (3-3, 0-1) at Louisville (3-3, 0-1): The past three games in this series have all been close, with UConn winning all three. One of these two teams will essentially be out of the Big East race by Saturday night. (ESPNU, 3:30 ET)
Syracuse (4-2, 1-1) at No. 20 West Virginia (5-1, 1-0): How do the Orange bounce back while taking on what looks like the best team in the league? Can the Mountaineers keep things rolling and avoid a letdown? (ESPN2, Noon ET)
South Florida (3-3, 0-2) at Cincinnati (3-3, 1-0): Two teams going different routes, as the Bearcats have turned it on offensively, while the Bulls continue to search for answers on that side of the ball. (ESPN2, Friday, 8 ET)
After the snap, tight end Will Johnson (238 pounds) followed behind Timmerman. Fullback Matt Lindamood (234 pounds) served as another blocker out of the I-formation. Ryan Clarke (247 pounds) took the handoff and rumbled 4 yards behind all that beef for the first down.
That mountainous Mountaineer package offered a hint that's been confirmed by the stats through three games: This is a different kind of West Virginia offense.
No longer does the offense rely just on small, speedy backs and quarterback runs. LSU's defense must prepare for a balanced, multi-faceted attack on Saturday.
"Two years ago against Colorado, we couldn’t get a first down because I didn’t have any tight ends or fullbacks," head coach Bill Stewart said. "I had little skill guys and slots. I didn’t have any Will Johnson because he just converted, or Tyler Urban, or Ryan Clarke because he wasn’t doing what I wanted and now I have a 238-pound chiseled man.
"So, we have to become well-rounded, and we have more in the arsenal. It’s called spreading the wealth and keeping people off balance."
The additional poundage has helped, but nothing has aided the offensive transformation more than the emergence of sophomore quarterback Geno Smith as a precision pocket passer.
Smith is completing 70.3 percent of his throws; the school record for completion percentage in a season is Pat White's 66.7 percent in 2007. He has already thrown eight touchdown passes, or four fewer than the Mountaineers had all of last season.
Smith can run, but that's rarely his first option. His only two runs of more than 10 yards this season came as he scrambled against a Marshall prevent defense in the fourth-quarter comeback. West Virginia is averaging 226 passing yards per game this season, up from 191 per game in 2009 and 151 in '08.
The play calling reflects that balance as well. The Mountaineers have rushed 136 times this year and passed it 107 times, a 56-44 ratio. Last year, the ratio was 59-41 in favor of the run, and in '08 it was tilted 63-37 toward the run.
Last week against Maryland, Smith tossed four touchdown passes in the first 33 minutes, and West Virginia used the power running of Clarke behind Lindamood to help run out the clock late. No wonder the Mountaineers tried a double-pass trick play in the third quarter; when you've got that many toys, you want to play with them.
"We've got more options," offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen told the Charleston Daily Mail after the Maryland win. "We don't have to throw it on every down just like we don't have to run it on every down. We've got a lot of guys who can do a lot of things."
They've still got the small skill guys in Noel Devine, Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin. But they're also developing receivers like Stedman Bailey and tight end Johnson, who caught the touchdown near the end of regulation in the Marshall win.
"Those guys really make a defensive coordinator look at this offense differently than they did a couple years ago," Smith said.
Was it that he led West Virginia on two nearly length-of-the field drives in the final eight minutes on the road? Was it his two clutch, touch throws to the back of the end zone for the score and two-point conversion to tie matters with 12 seconds left? Was it the way he barked at offensive linemen on the sideline and asserted his command of the team?
No. The most impressive thing about Smith is that his coaches and teammates totally expected that the true sophomore could do all that in only his second college start.
West Virginia has always had faith that Smith would make a great leader because of his uncanny poise. He's a guy who started all four years in high school in an offense similar to the Mountaineers' attack, and his coach even let him call the plays his final two years.
The Mountaineers witnessed his maturity last year, when he had to make his debut on the road at Auburn late in the game, taking over for an injured Jarrett Brown. Then he had to play almost the entire game against Marshall at home after Brown got hurt in the first quarter and led the team to the win. He also played the entire second half of the Gator Bowl against Florida State.
"I've been doing this for years," Smith said. "A lot of credit goes to my high school coach for preparing me for the next level. Then I just had to learn this offense, and I've pretty much mastered it. Now, it's about attacking defenses."
Smith said he never lost his calm in the Marshall game. Well, except for the time late in the game when he demanded better effort from his offensive linemen, who were allowing all sorts of penetration by the Thundering Herd defense much of the night. He even threw his helmet down on the sideline.
"You never want to rub guys the wrong way or make them think you don't believe in them," Smith says. "But when you see guys get down on themselves or losing confidence, you have to let them know it's time to step up and play. I was just trying to get the guys riled up."
Here's another impressive thing about Smith: Despite being sacked three times, despite being hurried and hit several more and despite coughing up a fumble while being sacked in the fourth quarter, he kept his cool. He maintained his focus downfield, bought extra time in the pocket when he needed it and then took what was available on those two long drives instead of anxiously shooting for the home run. There are some senior quarterbacks who can't do all that, especially on the road in a rivalry game.
"The way he was stepping out of the pocket and stepping up and making the throws he did was just incredible for a young quarterback," guard Josh Jenkins said. "We all had a lot of confidence in him already, but seeing him do those things makes us realize how great he really can be."
While Smith is leading the Big East in passing yards and completion percentage (72.2 percent), he's still young. Mullen said there were times in the Marshall game where Smith missed a read or his feet weren't set. Maybe if he makes those plays, the big comeback isn't needed.
"The stats look good and the outcome is fantastic, but there's still a lot of room for improvement," Mullen said. "He's got a long way to go, a long way to perfect his craft."
Still, Mullen calls Smith's poise "a gift," and coach Bill Stewart says his quarterback has got "it," that special quality all of the great ones have. That's illustrated by way Smith viewed others' reactions to his breakout performance.
"It got to the point where my phone was blowing up and Facebook was exploding and everything," he said of the aftermath of last week's win. "I appreciated the love people were showing me. But at the same time, I'm staying humble. I'm just going to work and make myself better."
That may be the most impressive thing of all about Geno Smith.
2. Solving Pitt's 'D': The Mountaineers have scored just 24 total points in the past two games against Pitt, as Dave Wannstedt has found the answer to stopping the West Virginia spread (hint: it helps to have really good players). Bill Stewart's offense has sputtered to put many points on the board in the past month anyway and now faces a huge test against a very talented defensive line. Noel Devine may or may not be healthy. What wrinkles have Stewart and offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen devised for this game?
3. Welcome to the Brawl, kid: Pitt freshman running back Dion Lewis has nearly wrapped up the league's offensive player of the year award with his outstanding season to this point. Can he keep it going in his first exposure to the West Virginia rivalry? Last time out, the Mountaineers allowed Cincinnati tailback Isaiah Pead to run for 175 yards on just 18 carries. How will they stop Lewis from carving them up behind the league's best offensive line?
4. Cincinnati steps out of conference: The No. 5 Bearcats' drive for perfection continues Friday with a rare late November nonleague game against Illinois. Cincinnati needs to not only win, but win big if it wants to impress enough pollsters to possibly move ahead of TCU in the BCS standings. Could getting outside of a conference where teams know Brian Kelly's system well help that cause? It certainly seems like a coaching mismatch between Kelly and the embattled Ron Zook.
5. The return of Tony Pike: Cincinnati's senior quarterback is expected to make his first start since the Oct. 15 win at South Florida. Pike made a cameo in the West Virginia game, throwing two touchdown passes in his four plays from scrimmage. This will be a lot different, as the Illini will undoubtedly try to hit him and see how his twice-repaired left forearm holds up. Kelly has the option of going to Zach Collaros if Pike has any problems, but a healthy, productive Pike could be the difference in the Dec. 5 showdown at Pitt.
6. The Big Four, Part II: Some in South Florida's corner made the claim the Bulls belonged to a new "Big Four" in the Sunshine State after their win at Florida State. Coach Jim Leavitt said that was premature. But USF gets another chance to prove that it belongs with the state's big boys when Miami comes to Raymond James Stadium on Saturday. Beating the 17th-ranked Hurricanes would prove even more impressive than the FSU win because of how the Seminoles faltered this season. And it would give South Florida a legitimate case for inclusion among a new Big Four.
7. Pressuring Harris: The Bulls' defensive game plan always starts with getting pressure up front, which was the key to their win at FSU. It will be just as important against Jacory Harris and the Hurricanes, who are averaging 31.7 points per game. Harris can do a lot of damage -- he's thrown for more 3,000 yards already this season -- but he can also be hurried into mistakes as evidenced by his 17 interceptions. South Florida needs to make him more Bad Jacory than Good Jacory.
8. Syracuse's rush defense: The Orange have allowed only one 100-yard rusher this season (Pitt's Dion Lewis) and have the best defense against the run in the Big East. In fact, they rank ninth nationally in that category. Well, here is a meeting of strength vs. strength. Connecticut lives to run behind its huge offensive line and with the terrific tandem of Jordan Todman and Andre Dixon, both of whom went over 100 yards last week against Notre Dame.
9. Rutgers' response: The Scarlet Knights were truly awful in a 31-13 loss at Syracuse last week. Greg Schiano said overconfidence played a role, but the Orange also exposed a lot of weaknesses in his team that Louisville might also try to exploit. If Rutgers wants to salvage anything out of this season, it absolutely cannot lose to both Syracuse and Louisville in back-to-back weeks.
10. Kragthorpe's last game? All indications are that Louisville coach Steve Kragthorpe won't have that job after Friday's game. An announcement on his dismissal would likely come no later than early next week. So what does Kragthorpe have to lose against Rutgers? Why not empty the playbook and put everything on the line in the season finale and try to go out on a high note.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Auburn went through some major growing pains last year as it tried to change its offense from buttoned-down and predictable to high-flying and modern. So painful, in fact, that offensive coordinator Tony Franklin and head coach Tommy Tuberville wound up out of work.
This year, under new coordinator Gus Malzahn, the Tigers have finally become a potent attack, scoring 86 points the first two weeks. Auburn's opponent this week can relate to how changing an offense often takes time and the right people to make it work.
West Virginia underwent an identity change last year with new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. Head coach Bill Stewart wanted to counter how teams like Pittsburgh and South Florida were slowing the Mountaineers' spread option by loading the box with nine defenders.
|AP Photo/Jeff Gentner|
|Noel Devine has rushed for 192 yards in West Virginia’s first two games.|
"We had to become more multiple to win big," Stewart said. "Plus, Patrick White was graduating. He wasn't going to be here forever."
Change came slowly and, at times, painfully. The once-explosive West Virginia offense sputtered to score three points at East Carolina, 14 at Colorado, 17 against Syracuse and 15 at Pitt. Only three times in the regular season did the Mountaineers manage 30 points or more against an FBS opponent.
But now, those changes are paying big dividends. It started in the Meineke Car Care Bowl, as White threw the ball all over the field in a 31-30 win over North Carolina. It has continued this season, as West Virginia has averaged 34 points in two victories. In the last three games, the offense has thrown for an average of 303 yards and run for an average of 164 yards. Balance has been achieved.
"We definitely feel a little bit more comfortable now," tight end Tyler Urban said. "We can trust the system because it's been intact for a solid year."
Trust is always a sketchy proposition when you ask players to do something totally different than what they're used to. Mullen had to convince a team that had been running Rich Rodriguez's option system to throw the ball downfield more. And as the new system clunked along, Mullen was heavily criticized by fans and surely faced doubt from his own players.
"I think it depends on how much success you have early," Mullen said. "That's clearly the case with Auburn right now, because they're having a ton of success. Whenever there's success, there's instant credibility, and so that faith journey doesn't take as long.
"With us, we had some of that success taken from us. So it took us a little longer to get back into that mode of believing in something and doing what we thought was right. Slowly, over time, we started to get better and better and better."
Coincidentally enough, Mullen said he thought the Mountaineers really started buying into his system during last year's game against Auburn. After falling behind 17-3, they rallied for 31 unanswered points and, in Mullen's eyes, "got their swagger back."
"When we put up 34 against Auburn, I think we felt a little bit more comfortable," Urban said. "We knew we could score against those highly-ranked defenses."
This year, the passing game has leaped forward under first-year starter Jarrett Brown, who has a cannon arm and a fifth-year senior's savvy. Brown has completed 75 percent of his passes so far while throwing for 577 yards and four touchdowns and running for 142 yards and a score. West Virginia's strength used to lie in the legs of its quarterback and with runners like Steve Slaton and Owen Schmitt. Stewart said now the team is loaded at receiver with a guy who can make any throw.
So the Mountaineers' own growing pains on offense now seem worth it for the growth that has occurred. And Mullen says there's more room for improvement.
"Right now, we're trying to ride the three-game streak we're on," he said. "So far, so good. But we're not satisfied, and we certainly don't feel like we've arrived yet."
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Cincinnati is counting on big things from running back Isaiah Pead, just as soon as he learns the little things, Bill Koch says in the Cincinnati Enquirer.
• West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen is eager to get a look at some true freshmen in the fall, Mike Casazza writes in the Charleston Daily Mail.
• The Mountaineers aren't ready to sweeten head coach Bill Stewart's contract, Jack Bogaczyk writes, also in the Daily Mail.
• The Hartford Courant's Desmond Conner has lots of good notes about UConn's practice on Tuesday, including coach Randy Edsall's response to whether he'll name a starting quarterback soon. Conner also reports that senior receiver Brad Kanuch has a broken collarbone but will be back this summer.
• Rutgers has plenty of questions on offense but so far has found few answers, Tom Luicci writes in The Star-Ledger.
• West Virginia offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen is excited about the Mountaineers' potential for explosiveness this year but says he needs to help develop a "get-after-it mentality," Mickey Furfari writes in the Charleston Daily Mail.
• The Hartford Courant's Desmond Conner caught up with Randy Edsall at the Big East men's basketball tournament and got a few of the UConn coach's thoughts, including the possibility of a bowl game in the Northeast.
"I've heard talk about it before, if there was an indoor facility, to have one," Edsall said. "Other than that, I think it would be pretty tough to have one but if we could, I think it would be great because you're guaranteed a spot. And if you could get one here in New York, because of the media attention and everything else, it would be great. The other thing is, you've got to get the right fit as far as the other conference, too. But I think anything that gives us exposure, if we could do it, yeah, I do think it would be great."
• South Florida coach Jim Leavitt gushes to the Tampa Tribune's Brett McMurphy about his new linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator David Blackwell.
• Kyle Flood and Kirk Ciarrocca expect their roles as co-offensive coordinators at Rutgers to go smoothly because of their close relationship, Tom Luicci writes in The Star-Ledger.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
South Florida tailback Mike Ford had a disappointing 2008 season. He had a high ankle sprain in the first game and was never the same. Now, Alan Dell writes in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Ford has dropped 20 pounds and is hoping for a bounce-back year.
"It was very frustrating last year. I never had an injury that lasted so long. The most I ever missed was a game or two and then I would be right back," Ford said.
"This year, I feel a lot lighter and stronger. I've been catching a lot of balls in 7-on-7 drills and my teammates commented that I was a lot faster."
• A Clemson assistant is interviewing for the vacant South Florida linebackers coach position.
• The Charleston Gazette's Mitch Vingle checks in with West Virginia coordinators Jeff Mullen and Jeff Casteel about spring story lines to watch for the Mountaineers.
Posted by ESPN.com's Brian Bennett
Fear not, Big East football fans. In less than a month, South Florida will be back on the practice field, with the rest of the league teams starting their spring drills shortly afterward.
There will be no shortage of situations to follow during the spring. There's a new head coach at Syracuse, new coordinators almost everywhere and no fewer than five teams seeking a new quarterback.
We've got all the story lines covered here in our team-by-team spring primer:
Spring practice starts: March 31
Spring game: April 25
What to watch:
• Defense, defense, defense. Safety Aaron Webster is the only returning defensive starter from 2008, so this spring will be about finding out who's ready to step into bigger roles. Several backups have experience, including linebacker Andre Revels and defensive end Curtis Young. But all jobs should be open. And with this week's firing of defensive coordinator Joe Tresey, the Bearcats could be working under a new scheme.
• Cincinnati brings back quarterback Tony Pike, receiver Mardy Gilyard and its top two rushers in Jacob Ramsey and John Goebel. But the spring will be time to find new playmakers as well. Isaiah Pead averaged 6.6 yards a carry in limited duty as a freshman and should see his role increase. The bubble wrap will come off promising redshirt freshman Quentin Hines. Receiver D.J. Woods had a solid freshman season and will need to build upon that to help replace Dominick Goodman.
• You don't normally pay much attention to punters in spring practice, but this is an exception. The Bearcats have to find a suitable replacement for two time All-American Kevin Huber.