By JOHN RABY
Ivan McCartney has put his personal issues behind him. He is ready for a senior season at West Virginia that a few months ago didn’t appear likely.
The wide receiver was an afterthought in the Mountaineers’ offense in 2012 and left the team with four games remaining. Now he’s back and being counted on to help a young group fill the void left by the record-setting duo of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
He cited his grandfather’s illness, not a lack of production, for heading home to Miami in November. He returned to the team in May, but missed spring practice and had to fight his way to the top of the depth chart.
“At the end of the day I had to come in, prove myself and work hard,” McCartney said. “That’s what it came down to.”
McCartney will start at an outside receiver spot when West Virginia opens at home Saturday against William & Mary. More good news came earlier this month when McCartney announced on his Twitter feed that his grandfather is cancer free.
Coach Dana Holgorsen saw a difference in McCartney in fall camp.
“I think it matters a lot more to him now,” Holgorsen said. “Whatever those issues were that he was dealing with last year, I don’t see him dealing with those. Is he going to be a difference maker? We’ll see on Saturday.”
Things came unraveled for McCartney last November. He caught one pass for 10 yards in an overtime loss to TCU at home, didn’t have a catch the next week in a loss at Oklahoma State and a few days he left the team.
While he insists his grandfather’s illness was at the center of his departure, there were some other issues that McCartney didn’t specify. He always knew he’d return to competition, but thoughts did creep into his head about not coming back.
“I had to mature,” he said. “That was my biggest thing. After my time off, I learned a lot and I was ready to come back and do what I had to do. Those six months were very important. A lot of thinking. A lot of talking. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if I wouldn’t have those six months off.
“My grandfather was very sick. I went back and I helped him out. I helped my dad out. I stayed in contact with the coaches and everything. After things cleared up back at home, it was just the right thing to do, just come back.”
McCartney’s most productive year was in 2011, when he had 49 receptions for 585 yards and three touchdowns. Last year that dwindled to nine catches for 112 yards.
Holgorsen said staying healthy has been an issue in previous seasons for McCartney.
“He’s been able to maintain relative health, which has always been one of his issues in the past. Did he have some sore limbs over the last three and a half weeks? Yes. Did it prevent him from practicing? No. And that’s different from the way it was in the first two years that I was here.”
With 11 career starts, McCartney’s role as a leader comes by default. Only two other veteran wide receivers made catches last year.
Sophomore K.J. Myers will start at the other outside receiver spot after catching two passes last year. Freshman Dakiel Shorts is penciled in at inside receiver.
Others is the mix are redshirt freshman Devonte Mathis, Ronald Carswell, a junior college transfer who originally signed with Alabama, and new father Jordan Thompson, a sophomore who had 13 catches a year ago.
Junior college transfers Kevin White and Mario Alford are questionable for Saturday’s gam e with what Holgorsen called foot problems.
“There’s a lot more competition than there’s every been here at receiver,” McCartney said. “We’re just going to push each other to our limits.”
A high school teammate of Bailey and former Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith, McCartney saw his No. 5 jersey number given to Alford in his absence, so he’ll wear No. 85 this season — the same number McCartney had in high school and the one his cousin, Chad Johnson, formerly Ochocinco, wore during his NFL career.
“It’s a new me,” McCartney said. “I’m more focused than ever. I’m hungry. I’m new. I’m back to how I was in high school. I’m ready.”