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March 30, 2011

A season of change at West Virginia

West Virginia has a knack for interesting coaching changes.

Three years ago, Rich Rodriguez bolted unexpectedly for Michigan after the Mountaineers were knocked out of the BCS championship game by an upset loss to Pittsburgh in the regular-season finale. Interim coach Bill Stewart originally was not considered a likely candidate for the job, but he was promoted after the Mountaineers stunned Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

West Virginia announced another coaching change this offseason. The Mountaineers hired Oklahoma State's Dana Holgorsen as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting; he will replace Stewart after this season.

Whether the move creates some awkward moments among the coaches remains to be seen. For the spring, though, Holgorsen and the new offensive staff will install their version of the spread offense that put up huge numbers in the Big 12.

Holgorsen gets to work with incumbent starting quarterback Geno Smith, a veteran offensive line and a group of capable wide receivers.

The more difficult rebuilding task will be for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. The Mountaineers ranked third nationally in total and scoring defense and second in rush defense last season, but they return only four starters. Most of the key cogs in last season's smothering defense -- Chris Neild, Robert Sands, J.T. Thomas, Anthony Leonard, Scooter Berry and Sidney Glover -- are gone.

Here's a look at West Virginia as it prepares for spring practice.

QB Geno Smith is back to direct what should be a high-powered offense at West Virginia.
Coach: Bill Stewart
Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-2 in the Big East; lost 23-7 to N.C. State in Champs Sports Bowl.
Spring dates: March 30-April 29.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (7): WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, T Don Barclay, T Jeff Braun, G Josh Jenkins, C Joe Madsen, QB Geno Smith.
Defense (4): SS Terence Garvin, LB Najee Goode, E Julian Miller, CB Keith Tandy.
Special teams (1): K Tyler Bitancurt.
Positions of strength

Geno Smith didn't take long to ease concerns about the Mountaineers' quarterback position. In his first season as the starter, he passed for 2,763 yards and 24 touchdowns as a sophomore. He'll need to learn a new system under coordinator Dana Holgorsen, but the offense has a good start on the new scheme. Jock Sanders is gone, but the Mountaineers return receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, a high school teammate of Smith's at Miramar (Fla.) High. The backs will run behind a veteran line that returns four starters, including standouts Don Barclay and Josh Jenkins. The defense is rebuilding, but it should be solid at end. Returning starter Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin combined for 23 sacks last season.

Help is needed

West Virginia has been consistently productive at running back, most recently with Noel Devine rushing for the third-highest total in school history (4,317 career yards). But the Mountaineers don't have any easy answers at the position this season. Ryan Clarke is a big back who has been a short-yardage specialist with 16 touchdowns the past two seasons. Beyond Clarke and Shawne Alston (56 carries), West Virginia is short on experience. With only four returning starters from a unit that ranked third in the country, the defense has its share of holes. Veteran Ts Chris Neild and Scooter Berry are gone, as is reliable LB J.T. Thomas. The biggest absences on defense, though, may be in the secondary. WVU runs a 3-3-5 set and three starters in the secondary have to replaced, including FS Robert Sands and CB Brandon Hogan.

3 guys to watch

LB Branko Busick: The sophomore battled injuries last season, but he's expected to become the primary middle linebacker, a position manned by Anthony Leonard and Reed Williams the past two seasons. Busick will be backed up by a redshirt freshman, so the Mountaineers need him to be productive.

WR Ivan McCartney: Geno Smith and high school teammate Stedman Bailey showed their chemistry last season in the passing game. McCartney, a third Miramar (Fla.) High product, will get into the mix this season. McCartney is a physical receiver, so he could add a different dimension to the passing game.

LB Doug Rigg: Najee Goode will start at one of the outside linebacker spots and Rigg is listed as the other potential starter on the outside. He played sparingly last season, but coaches like his ball-hawking skills.

The pressure is on

RB Ryan Clarke: He helped solve West Virginia's short-yardage woes, but can he be a more complete running back now that Devine is gone? Clarke can play both running back positions in Holgorsen's offense, but he'll be under pressure at both spots. Alston rushed for 248 yards on 56 carries last season and is poised for more action this season. Alston could be the starting tailback with Clarke at fullback.

The buzz

West Virginia's spring practice will be worth keeping an eye on. The Mountaineers could enter the season as the Big East favorite, but there are question marks in Morgantown, starting with Holgorsen's arrival. As a coordinator, he must adapt West Virginia's personnel to his system and vice versa. On the other side of the ball, coordinator Jeff Casteel is facing another set of challenges with inexperience at most positions on defense.

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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