July 29, 2008

NEWPORT, R.I. -- There are plenty of indications that West Virginia's Bill Stewart doesn't fit the mold of the conventional college football coach. At the top of that list might be the fact he actually wanted to see senior quarterback Pat White -- West Virginia's Heisman Trophy candidate -- in a Mountaineers baseball uniform last spring.

"He said, 'Coach, I don't know if I can hit the curve ball,'" Stewart said. "And I said, 'Oh, Patrick. If I could hit the curve ball, I wouldn't be sitting here today. I love baseball.'"

White, a senior who is 26-4 as West Virginia's starting quarterback, was drafted by the Los Angeles Angels as an outfielder in 2004 and 2007. The Cincinnati Reds took him in the 49th round last month. But White declined the option presented by Stewart in order to focus on his final shot at a national championship. Already recognized as the most versatile quarterback in the college game, White would like to convince NFL scouts and executives that there is a spot for him in the professional ranks.

Media members chose West Virginia, coming off an 11-2 season and 48-28 victory over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, as the overwhelming favorite to win the Big East at the conference's annual meeting day on Tuesday. The Mountaineers received 22 of 24 first-place votes.

Stewart is beginning his first season as successor to Rich Rodriguez, who departed for Michigan before the Fiesta Bowl win over the Sooners. It may not be a completely seamless transition, but Stewart understands White is the primary reason behind the lopsided preseason ballot.

"Pat White is the best option quarterback in the game," Pittsburgh coach Dave Wannstedt said. "He's a great player."

Stewart spent seven seasons as West Virginia's quarterback coach before moving up to associate head coach last season. His message to Mountaineers fans is to appreciate White's versatility and everything that will enable West Virginia to do this season.

"You need to savor that," Stewart said. "You need to stop and smell the roses. What we're seeing as an athlete and as a man, I've not seen many more like him. You take a guy like Patrick White and what he brings to an offense ... He's a Kordell Stewart, [Antwaan] Randle El, Warren Moon kind of guy. Now is he going to the NFL and throw for 40,000 yards like Warren Moon? No. There's only one of him also. But Patrick has all those intangibles that would make an NFL team very exciting."

Early projections for the 2009 NFL draft indicate White will rank relatively high among wide receivers. But an offensive philosophy that will encourage White to pass more this season could change some minds.

"I think we're going to put the ball in the hands of a lot more athletes," said White, who passed for 1,724 yards and rushed for 1,335 last season. "Everybody is going to get more touches. Spread the wealth."

West Virginia's running game will continue to be strong, with sensational sophomore Noel Devine replacing Steve Slaton. But offensive tackle Ryan Stanchek says there will be new wrinkles in the offense.

"We're going to throw more," Stanchek said. "It will give Pat more opportunities to show off his arm. I'm excited for him to have that opportunity. I hope there's some surprises -- a little bit of everything."

South Florida and Pittsburgh each received one first-place vote in the preseason poll. USF, coming off a breakthrough season 9-4 season that saw the Bulls climb to No. 2 in the Oct. 14 AP poll, was the choice for second place with 149 points, 40 behind West Virginia.

Second-best won't be good enough for USF coach Jim Leavitt, who is 79-47 since starting the program from scratch in 1997.

"Our goal is to win the league," Leavitt said. "We haven't won [the Big East] and we've been in it three years now. That's a little disappointing to us and I'm not getting any younger. You're not going to get a chance at credibility until you win a conference championship."

The Bulls have 17 starters returning, including All-America defensive end George Selvie and versatile quarterback Matt Grothe. Leavitt isn't pointing to any one game on the schedule, but the Bulls could make another national statement against Kansas on Sept. 12 in Tampa. Leavitt and Kansas coach Mark Mangino were assistant coaches under former Kansas State coach Bill Snyder and remain good friends.

"I have great respect for Mark," Leavitt said. "You'll never hear either one of us saying something bad about the other. Last year they asked Mark, 'Should you guys be [ranked] above South Florida?' He goes, 'Don't even get into that with me. I know Jim too well."

Louisville athletic director Tom Jurich told the university's board of trustees last month that the Cardinals "are in a rebuilding process" and said he just wants to "get through" the next two years.

The Cardinals arrived at media day last year as a contender not only for the Big East title but also a national championship. Instead, Louisville finished 6-6 and 3-4 in the conference. Now with the departure of quarterback Brian Brohm, who passed for 10,775 yards in his career, Louisville is picked to finish seventh, ahead of only Syracuse.

On top of that, senior cornerback Rod Council was arrested for armed robbery and kicked off the team. Running back George Stripling was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules. Running back Anthony Allen transferred. Junior receiver JaJuan Spillman was arrested for the second time in 10 months, and wide receiver Trent Guy was shot outside a nightclub in downtown Louisville.

"It's tough to see guys go and it's tough to see U of L get somewhat of a negative image in the media," said senior quarterback Hunter Cantwell, who will replace Brohm. "You do love the school and you love the city."

Second-year coach Steve Kragthorpe said the players who have departed under controversial circumstances essentially "dismissed themselves." But he said there must be improvement on and off the field.

"Anything that has happened is my fault," Kragthorpe said. "I accept full responsibility. We've got to get it fixed."

Mike Tranghese, heading into his final season as conference commissioner, said he never could have predicted the football success enjoyed by the conference 20 years ago or even five years ago when Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College left for the Atlantic Coast Conference. "I think we've proven ourselves," Tranghese said. ... Pittsburgh, picked third in the preseason poll, is expecting even bigger things from running back LeSean McCoy, who set a Big East freshman record with 1,328 rushing yards last season. "He left a lot of long runs on the field last year," Wannstedt said. "He can be better. He can do a better job reading defenses and making cuts." McCoy sees brighter days ahead for Pitt. "I want to get back to the old tradition of Pitt football," he said. ... Connecticut quarterback Tyler Lorenzen is heading into his senior season with an entirely different perspective. Lorenzen, a transfer from Palomar Community College in San Marcos, Calif., stepped in last season and started all 13 games while completing 57 percent of his passes. "This feels great," Lorenzen said. "A little bit of gray matter is good thing. I understand the offense and I have a great relationship with my teammates. It's so much different. Last year at this time I had no idea if I was going to be a starter or not."

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