By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The players are back on the football field. That can only mean the start of the college football season is closing in.
The West Virginia Mountainers — and even Bluefield College — have opened preparations for the upcoming season.
Other football teams in the regional coverage area will begin later this week.
West Virginia enters its first season in the Big 12 with lofty aspirations, having been ranked 11th in the USA Today coaches poll released earlier this week. Only Oklahoma was picked ahead of the Mountaineers in the league media poll.
No wonder the Mountaineers are anxious to play, with the season opener slated for Sept. 1 against Marshall.
“Everyone is running around ready to play,” said West Virginia junior defensive end Will Clarke, in a press release. “Everyone is excited to get the pads on and play. There has been a lot of trash talking going on around here.”
Clarke and his defensive mates have been largely overlooked in the preseason hype, but that happens when an offense led by Geno Smith, Tavon Auston and Stedman Bailey puts up 70 points in their last game, a rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
“We know that we have a chance to do some pretty big things,” Bailey said. “We will have a lot opportunities on the table. We are just ready to go out there and have some fun.”
The offense can score, but a strong defense will be needed in the Big 12 where West Virginia is joining such wide open offenses as Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and others.
“It will be a dual effort. If we are going to win, it has to come from both sides,” Clarke said. “The offense will need to step up, and the defense will need to step up.”
West Virginia has a new look on defense, with Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 stack scheme replaced by a more typical 3-4 look, which is supposed to create more freedom to make plays.
“The 3-3-5 is a defense that engages you with linemen a lot. I never engaged with linemen on every single play like I did last year,” West Virginia senior linebacker Josh Francis said. “With this defense, you have a little more freedom. You are able to show off your craft. This defense and these coaches allow you to showcase your abilities on every snap.”
Defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, who came to West Virginia from Oklahoma State after Casteel left, has been pleased with the results from spring drills to now, with just 26 days before the season begins.
“What I have seen the past two days at practice, they are moving around; they are not stiff and they are not unsure about what they are doing,” DeForest said. “As a defensive coach, they are able to move around and show some disguise.
“They are not just lining up so that the offense knows what they are doing. That is what we are going to try and do. Give them the freedom to move around and create confusion.”
With it having been more than three months since the Mountaineers last congregated as a team during spring practice, DeForest was asked if the players had forgotten much of what they learned.
Fortunately for him, their memories have been good.
“They do seven on seven during the summer, and there was some carry over,” DeForest said. “Overall, I am very pleased. I am surprised how well the freshmen actually picked it up, because they were doing seven on seven the first day of practice and they have a lot of knowledge already.”
So far members of the defense likes what they see.
“It wasn’t really that hard of a change. Guys have transitioned into the new scheme pretty easily,” Clarke said. “We have just been trying to master the new defense. We have just been using our technique and going over different disguises we will be using in games.”
While the defense is getting special attention in preparation for the season, the offense — much of which is back from last season — is a proven commodity. Now is time to be a force in every game, which wasn’t always the case in 2011.
“If you look back at last year, everybody wants to look back at the very last game, and I don’t think you can execute any better than that,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “But, there were games leading up to that that we did not execute very well. Hopefully, our consistency level will improve.”
Marshall will begin practice today, with Virginia following on Monday and Virginia Tech starting on Tuesday. Concord opens preparations on Saturday.
West Virginia will have its annual Fan Day on Aug. 12.