by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

It might be difficult to script a reality show as entertaining as the West Virginia football program this offseason. The infighting between former head coach Bill Stewart and his successor Dana Holgorsen was classic backbiting that would make “The Bachelor” or “Real Houswives of New Jersey” producers salivate. Stewart had Holgorsen essentially forced on him as the offensive coordinator and head coach in waiting by A.D. Oliver Luck in December. The arrangement barely made it through spring practices, as Stewart allegedly enlisted local news media to “dig up dirt” on Holgorsen with the obvious objective of torpedoing the succession plan. The lame duck Stewart (and possibly his wife) “dropped a dime” on Holgorsen, calling him a scumbag and pointing to a couple of alcohol-related incidents as reason for his potential dismissal. At the risk of stereotyping a school, alcohol is no stranger in Morgantown, as West Virginia students have been “known to take a drop now and again” as they say in the region (although it’s probably not true a .08 or better breathalyzer test is required along with decent SAT scores for prospective students to expect admission). Having a few cold ones at a casino, where Holgorsen (also spoted enjoying himself thoroughly in Las Vegas during the offseason) apparently likes to frequent, will not get him fired unless he begins to dance on the poker tables. Stewart’s attempt at undermining the new coach only accelerated Luck’s “out with the old, in with the new” plan. And now the Mountaineers will be guided by one of the best young offensive minds in the country.

Holgorsen was the offensive coordinator of explosive attacks at Texas Tech, Houston and most recently Oklahoma State, and he’s got some serious armament ready to roll out this fall in Morgantown. The “basketball on grass” attack has a triggerman in vet starter Geno Smith, who completed 65% of his passes for 3072 yards, 25 scores and threw just 8 interceptions in 13 starts last season. The senior from Miami was named to numerous all-Big East teams and led the conference in passing efficiency. He’ll operate behind a vet offensive line that returns four starters, including 2nd-team all-conference 5th-year senior T Don Barclay. Barclay, G Josh Jenkins and C Joe Madsen are all entering their third seasons as regulars, with 76 combined starts. The other holdover regular is 6-3, 308-lb. Jeff Braun.

Normally, a team might be fazed by losing a running back as talented as graduated star Noel Devine (4317 career rushing yards, 31 touchdowns). However, Holgorsen says running back is the deepest position on the team. Devine rushed for just 58 ypg in the Mountaineers’ last 10 games a year ago, running for just 2 scores in the last 8 contests. Juniors Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke combined for 86 ypg on the ground in the last four Big East games last season. However, both Alston & Clarke were pushed out of their anticipated starting spots during spring workouts. Swift true frosh Vernard Roberts was listed as a starter at the “A” back position after turning in an impressive spring, while bruising, 234-pound jr. Matt Lindamood passed the 247-pound Clarke at the other RB slot. More competition is on the way when highly-touted incoming freshmen Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie arrive in August.

Holgorsen has another key offensive piece available in vet wide receiver Tavon Austin. The speed-burning jr. led WV in receiving yards and TD catches while being named second-team all-Big East in 2010. Austin is joined by a pair of productive wideouts in soph Stedman Bailey (9 starts LY) and 6-3, 5th year senior Brad Starks, who combined for 43 catches and 8 TD receptions. The depth at receiver was demonstrated by the fact walk-on Ryan Nehlen was listed ahead of both Starks and highly-recruited Ivan McCartney on the depth chart heading into the fall. Another wild card is Wake Forest transfer Devon Brown, who could be another big playmaker. Having a number of dangerous receivers is key to keeping the offense on track, as spacing out the defenses and creating matchup advantages is his strength.

Defensively, the Mountaineer outlook is not bleak, although it’s unlikely they will match last year’s 3rd-ranked unit, which allowed just 13.5 ppg and 261 ypg. Despite losing seven starters from last year’s stellar crew, there are enough pieces remaining to make defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel optimistic. Casteel has held the d.c. job in Morgantown since 2003, and he’s done an excellent job. There is quality returning, starting up front with fifth-year senior DT Julian Miller (27 career starts; 54 tackles, 9½ sacks last season) and NFL prospect DE Bruce Irvin (2nd-team all-Big East in 2010; second in the country with 14 sacks). NT Jorge Wright and Josh Taylor will continue their fight for the top spot in August (provided Wright does everything required and is reinstated to the team after a spring suspension).

The secondary has returning all-conference selection CB Keith Tandy (57 tackles and a Big East-leading 6 ints. LY; 27 career starts) and two experienced safeties in jr. Terence Garvin (top WV tackler LY with 76) and fifth-year sr. Eain Smith (9 starts). The linebacking crew will be shuffled, as 5th-year sr. Najee Goode has been variously listed as the starter at all three LB spots. Probably not a worry, since Casteel specializes in coaching linebackers and he has laundry list of interesting candidates.

A weakness on special teams has to be jr. PK Tyler Bitancurt, who made just 10 of 17 field goals last season and missed several kicks in competition in the spring. Jr. Corey Smith was a kickoff specialist last year who will take over punting duties and perhaps handle placements as well if Bitancurt doesn’t get straightened out.

Summary: West Virginia has finished first or second in the Big East for nine straight years, and some say they did that despite having Bill Stewart as coach the past three seasons. Holgorsen will revive an offense that had stagnated in recent seasons, finishing 78th, 67th and 73rd in scoring under Stewart’s watch. Holgorsen’s Oklahoma State attack broke five school records last season (and finished 10-3 against the points). In two years guiding the Houston Cougar offense it averaged 42 ppg & 563 total yards. When named offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, the Red Raiders improved offensive production by 200 yards per game and the team finished 2nd in the country in total yardage in his final season in Lubbock. Drinking or not, this guy can flat out coach an offense.

Mountaineer A.D. Oliver Luck didn’t pick Stewart, and he would’ve fired him earlier if it weren’t for monetary considerations (Stewart’s contract had to be bought out for $1.65 million). This might be turn out to be the best coaching change from 2010 to 2011, and have to expect the Mounties to represent the Big East in the BCS when it’s all over.

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