It seems like just yesterday ... Pat White ... Steve Slaton ... the Spread Offense ... scoring at will. Ah, how things change. This year looks like the first year in recent memory that the defense may be the Mountaineers' premiere unit, not the offense. So how are things stacking up for the offense this season? Let's have a look:
Quarterback: There was comfort in having Pat White under center. Even last year, with Jarrett Brown, you knew that he was the QB no matter how poorly he played. The decision had been made. This year ... not so much. Geno Smith enters the season as the starter. The sophomore signal caller was thrust into game action last year, including in the Gator Bowl against Florida State, so he has some game experience, just not much. Everything coming out of camp suggests that the kid has matured, has a full grasp of the offense and is ready to go. It's common knowledge he has a big arm and quick feet, so the skills are there. Problem is, so much of the QB position is between the ears. If he can make the right decisions, he'll be the starter this year and for the rest of his time in Morgantown. If he struggles, we could see highly touted freshmen Barry Brunetti or Jeremy Johnson as early as October.
Running Back: Of all the positions on the offense, this one has the most talent. Noel Devine is a legitimate Heisman candidate and Ryan Clarke has cemented himself as the fullback. Expect those two to get the bulk of the carries this year. Shawne Alston and Daquan Hargrett are the backups, but I only expect to see them in garbage time. If something happens to Devine, expect Jock Sanders to slide over from his position in the slot. All in all, the success of WVU's running backs rests entirely on how Bill Stewart plans to use them. Feed them with carries early and often, and I expect to see the 'Eers putting a whole lot of points on the board. Neglect the backfield, and expect to face a whole lot of third and longs. Stewart took a lot of heat last year for not putting the ball in the hands of his best playmaker. I don't expect that to happen again.
Wide Receiver: As long as I can remember, the passing game has never been the 'Eers strong suit. All of that could change this year. If Geno Smith is the QB we've been told he is, than footballs will be flying in Morgantown this season. Jock Sanders in the slot is still the best playmaker of the bunch, using the short passing game as an extended handoff and letting his legs take over. Tavon Austin showed flashes of greatness as a freshman last year in the other slot, and should turn it up a notch this season with his raw athleticism. I expect Brad Starks, who has had his fair share of trials and tribulations, to finally have a breakout year. He's shown what he can do, but has never done it consistently. His size on the outside should give Geno a big enough target to throw the out patterns and jumpballs that have eluded the Mountaineer offense over the last couple of seasons.
Offensive Line: Ah, here's the rub. Everything I've just told you about Geno Smith, Noel Devine and Brad Starks can be tossed out the window. As this offensive line goes, go the Mountaineers. Neither Jarrett Brown nor Noel Devine had seasons like they would have wanted in '09 and much of that can be attributed to spotty line play. Last year, the line was young and inexperienced. This year they're young, but experienced. Josh Jenkins and Don Barclay anchor a line that returns four starters. For them, the job is simple: clear some big holes for Devine and keep Geno from running for his life. If they can do that, it'll be a great year to be a Mountaineer. If they can't ... well, I'm not even going to think about that.
Special Teams: We know that punt coverage needs work. Heck, all kinds of special team strategy and tackling need to be addressed. That said, kicker Tyler Bitencourt proved to be one of the best in the business last season, and I expect more of the same this year. Having a kicker with range and accuracy will put the Mountaineers in a position to win this season, even when the offense sputters. That might happen at the beginning of the season as the offense finds its sea legs.
FINAL PREDICTION: The Mountaineers will score, but it won't always be pretty. Devine will break his customary long scores, and Geno Smith will mature slowly into a viable BCS QB ... that is, if the Offensive Line can get things rolling.