Cory Mccartney
Friday February 29th, 2008

The two freshmen speedsters and the homegrown coach sat at a podium inside the Georgia Dome collectively beaming. A West Virginia team that was a preseason afterthought had just delivered arguably the most monumental win in the program's history, but already the conversation had shifted to what appeared to be a future of limitless potential for Rich Rodriguez's team behind star running back Steve Slaton and quarterback Pat White.

When asked what was next for this group, White answered without batting an eye "Start a dynasty, I guess."

Now, two years since the 38-35 win over No. 8 Georgia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl that turned two players who didn't even start until midway through the season and a coach who was 0-3 in bowl games into marquee names, things look decidedly different at WVU heading into spring practice. All that remains from West Virginia's return to national prominence is the soon-to-be redshirt senior quarterback. Slaton opted out of his senior season and bolted for the NFL, while Rodriguez broke the collective hearts of West Virginia fans when he left for Michigan in what continues to be a messy divorce.

"It was different but you get used to it," White said of his best friend and roommate Slaton. "I guess it's sort of like when my big brother [Bo] left me and headed off to college. At first it was a little strange but you get used to it. We still communicate. It's no biggie."

The former All-America running back's departure was firmly tied to that of Rodriguez, who took the Mountaineers' offensive coordinator and running backs coach Calvin Magee with him. Slaton recently said he may have stayed in Morgantown had Magee not gone to Michigan.

"I was just hoping he did what was best for him," White said. "I want to see him succeed like all the rest of my teammates that have the opportunity to move on to the next level. I wish him the best."

While there was speculation that Slaton was leaving, Rodriguez was another matter. His announcement to the team on Dec. 17 that he would be succeeding Lloyd Carr at Michigan stunned the Mountaineers, but in retrospect, White says: "[It was] business, decisions you know that you had no effect on but they end up affecting you. But you just have to go with the flow and whatever happens, happens."

The trio of Rodriguez, Slaton and White raised the level of expectations in Morgantown as a part of three double-digit win seasons, a pair of Big East crowns and two BCS bowl berths (and if not for a devastating 13-9 loss to 28-point underdog Pitt in last year's regular-season finale, one national-title appearance).

On top of losing Slaton and Rodriguez, White will enter next fall without leading receiver Darius Reynaud and fullback Owen Schmitt, who both used up their eligibility. But White isn't buying into the "last man standing" view of his decision to stay at WVU, even though his backfieldmate and the coach whose spread offense turned the quarterback into a star have left.

"I don't know about the last guy standing -- but the last guy that has his name in the paper," White said.

White's correct in the sense that the Mountaineers return eight starters on offense and four on defense, though there's little debate that this fall the focus will be on White more so than it has been at any point in his career. He alone will be the face of West Virginia football, and with the departures of Louisville QB Brian Brohm and Rutgers RB Ray Rice, he'll also be the face of the Big East. But the added pressure won't be prompting him to change a thing.

"I can't do anything different than what I've been doing all my life -- just play ball," he said.

So far, that approach has won White back-to-back Big East Offensive Player of the Year awards in a career that's produced 4,207 passing yards and 35 touchdowns and 3,506 yards rushing (he already held the conference's career QB rushing record before '07) and 39 scores. He ran for 1,335 yards in '07, his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season.

"I think his speed and his football smarts -- the way he knows the offense and the way he reads defenses [makes him so effective]," said Mountaineers running back Noel Devine.

Despite the exodus of his coach and best friend, White, says he never considered leaving for the NFL or for a baseball career (he has been drafted twice by the Los Angeles Angels).

"[Leaving] never crossed my mind," he said. "I just want to enjoy my final season."

In the wake of Rodriguez's sudden departure, which was moved up from Jan. 3, one day after the upcoming Fiesta Bowl, to Dec. 18, Devine said White took charge of the team as it tried to band together under the direction of interim coach Bill Stewart.

"Pat's always been a leader since coach Rod's been here. I think he's stepped up more," Devine said. "He stepped in as a leader and do what he always do and be there for the whole team and just carry the team."

In the Mountaineers' first game without Rodriguez, White did just that. He earned Fiesta Bowl MVP honors in WVU's 48-28 win over Oklahoma, throwing for 176 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 150 yards. Afterward he even did some stumping for Stewart, his former quarterbacks coach, saying, "He deserves [the job]. A great man. A great coach. All the players respect him and all the players love him. You couldn't ask for a better man to lead us to victory."

West Virginia officials agreed ,and despite interviewing a number of candidates, opted to give the West Virginia native a five-year deal.

"It's a big relief," White said. "Coach Stew coached me when I first got here. Me and him spent a lot of time together. For him to now be our head coach says a lot about him."

With Stewart stepping in for Rodriguez and Devine filling the role of Slaton, White still has the punch and stability that helped transform West Virginia in the first place -- and he'll also have family on the roster this fall in brother Coley, who's also a quarterback.

But there's bound to be some slight changes. The offense will be under the direction of first-year coordinator Jeff Mullen, and while he's smartly said he doesn't plan on reinventing the offense, he is going to add his own wrinkles, like adding more motion. This should create confusion and take some of the heat off White and the RBs by allowing slot receivers to run and also creating low-risk, high-percentage throws.

While they have yet to install any of these tweaks, White says the transition into the Stewart era has been a smooth and hurried one.

"There's a wonderful connection from coach to players and it's happening in a very short time frame," he said. "The new coaches that have come in have definitely gelled with the players and vice versa."

Of course, it all starts with White. He finished sixth in the Heisman voting in '07, but was plagued by injuries. Health seems to be a constant worry for a gangly 6-foot-2, 185-pounder, especially with the amount of shots White takes. He was injured three times last season, straining a chest muscle against Syracuse, suffering a thigh bruise against USF and hurting his right thumb against Pitt. While he left the game against the Orange with WVU comfortably leading 38-7, his absence proved costly in WVU's only losses against the Bulls and Panthers.

White will benefit from an offense line that returns all five starters and the running game should still be effective with Devine, who averaged 8.6 yards per carry as a freshman. But the onus will be on the star QB to stay healthy if the Mountaineers are to continue to build that dynasty White forecasted.

Without Rodriguez and Slaton, the focus and pressure will be squarely on White. But it ultimately doesn't really matter to him who's in Morgantown or who isn't. He would have carried those same expectations into his senior year, just like he did his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons.

"I expect it every game," he said. "Every time I step on the field, more is expected of me."

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