MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Dana Holgorsen has never been one to mince words. He knows how far his team has to go, so he sees little point trying to pretend otherwise. That can be encouraging for fans; when Holgorsen says his defense is steadily improving, they're inclined to believe him. But it can also be a bit jarring.
Take last weekend, for example. As West Virginia's coach stood at the podium following the team's spring game, a reporter asked if he was ready to name a starting quarterback.
"At quarterback?" Holgorsen laughed, glancing briefly around the room. "Not only are we not ready to do that at quarterback, we're not ready to do that at about 20 other positions as well."
Meet the 2013 Mountaineers. They're more than a team in transition: They're a team trying to figure out who they are.
"The identity of the team always is changing," said junior quarterback Paul Millard. "We just gotta keep progressing and nobody needs to try to fill anybody's shoes. You just do what you do and go out there and play."
Millard understands this reality better than most. He's competing to succeed Geno Smith, the soon-to-be NFL draft pick and the program's all-time leader in completions (988), passing yards (11,662) and passing touchdowns (98). The offense, sans Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, is trying to carve out its own niche. Considering last year's group averaged more than 39 points and 500 yards per game, that won't be easy.
In fact, for the first five games of the 2012 season, West Virginia was the team. It put up points as quickly as Kobayashi puts down hot dogs, daring opponents to keep up, however unsustainable the approach. The wheels eventually came off. After a 5-0 start, Mountaineers dropped six of their final eight games to finish 7-6. But the offense remained mesmerizing. It boasted a Big Three unparalleled in the collegiate ranks: the surgically precise passer, the explosive all-purpose dynamo and the red-zone receiving machine.
In his two-year career, meanwhile, Millard has just 16 completions, 211 passing yards and three touchdowns. Ford Childress, the onetime Kinkaid (Texas) High standout who split first-team reps this spring, has yet to attempt a regular-season pass. West Virginia's uncertainty under center has prompted former Florida State backup Clint Trickett to consider transferring here -- he reportedly visited the Mountaineers' spring game on April 20 -- and has brought on some tough love from the coaching staff.
"I think that you gotta put 'em under heat, you gotta see how they're gonna respond," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. "And the best way to do that is not to sit there and buddy-buddy with them. ... When they mess up, it's gonna be bad. And if they do good, I'll pat 'em on the butt for a second. But there's only one way to know how a kid is gonna perform under pressure: You gotta put him under pressure."
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Quarterback is far from the only position under pressure, though. The rest of the offense is equally inexperienced, with just two starting offensive linemen coming back and a whole new crop of wide receivers. Kevin White, Daikiel Shorts and K.J. Myers have all shown flashes of big-play ability, but until they're tested come fall, it's hard to gauge how effective they'll be. Then there's Jordan Thompson, the sophomore nicknamed "Squirt," who danced past the secondary to rack up 123 receiving yards and three touchdowns in the spring game. But Holgorsen, who also saw Thompson steal the show in last season's spring outing (eight catches, 66 yards and a touchdown), isn't putting much stock into the performance.
"He will go down in the history books as the greatest spring game player of all-time," Holgorsen deadpanned. "... I haven't seen him do that it a game yet. Until he does that in a game, we're gonna not talk about him."
One area that does inspire confidence is running back, where returnees Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are joined by juco transfer Dreamius Smith and freshman speedster Wendell Smallwood. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound Smith has both the name and talent to emerge as a star, while Garrison is finally making the cuts he did during his breakout 2011 campaign, before he went down with ACL and MCL injuries. "My mind is where it needs to be," said Garrison. "I'm just ready to play again."
The offense is eager, but unproven. From the backfield to the trenches, it features players ready for their time, anxious to show what they're capable of doing.
West Virginia's defense has a different, yet similar, story. Last year, it was terrible, allowing more than 38 points and 312 passing yards per game, totals that ranked 114th and 118th in the nation, respectively. But it also features a batch of youngsters, many of whom are desperate to leave an impression.
Here's the difference: While last year's unit was almost entirely untested, this group features a noted veteran contingent. Namely, the Mountaineers will benefit from the return of redshirt seniors defensive tackle Will Clarke, nose tackle Shaq Rowell and safety Darwin Cook.
"I think the key is the leaders that we do have are in key positions," said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. "It's like being strong up the middle in baseball. When you got Shaq and Will up front. When you have Cook in the middle in the back end."
Echoed Holgorsen: "We've got guys defensively that are older, mature, been through the ringer, so to speak. So I really like where we're at from a leadership standpoint defensively. It's night and day to where we are offensively."
The talk sounds the same. West Virginia is raw, still searching for an identity. It wants to move on from last season's disappointing finish, to put the Geno, Tavon and Stedman Show in the past.
But while the lack of experience has dominated conversation around Morgantown, another theme has prevailed this spring: camaraderie. This team is close. Closer than last year. And without a trio of nationally recognizable stars, it's adopted a beat-the-odds mentality.
"We don't mind being more vocal than we were last year," said Garrison. "Last year we didn't talk as much because we had older guys, we were still learning. This year, we're the older guys and guys are looking up to us."
Garrison raved about the "energy" and "vibe" in the running backs room. Clarke said the defense bonds regularly, from playing videos games to going to the movies to meeting up for massive team dinners, including at his favorite spot, Texas Roadhouse. ("I'm a big fan of Texas Roadhouse's ribs," Clarke said. "And the bread. So shout out to them for that.") The one thing these Mountaineers have going for them is their selflessness. And that goes a long way. It's the type of trait that can mask a lot of other flaws, make a less-talented team surprisingly dangerous.
There's certainly a long way to go. There are far more questions than there are answers. That doesn't figure to change anytime soon: With more young players set to be added to the fold, including four-star receiver Shelton Gibson, change is all but certain between now and fall camp.
But standing at the podium, Holgorsen also expressed a sense of cautious optimism. Given his candor, perhaps that's reason enough to believe.
"Each and every year that we've lost great players, the initial reaction is how are we gonna score a point?" Holgorsen said. "And then other guys step up.
"Sometimes it takes a bunch of competition for somebody to actually emerge. Those are the guys that we're looking for. I feel really good about somebody doing that, I just don't know who they're gonna be yet."
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