By Gary Fauber
Assistant Sports Editor
It would be easy to assume that a group of guys that wears the words West Virginia on sweatshirts, hats, t-shirts and put on helmets with the state’s outline on the back on an almost daily basis would know a little something about the state’s capital city.
But for the majority of the WVU football team, that wasn’t the case until Saturday morning.
When the Mountaineers arrived in Charleston to hold a spring practice at the University of Charleston’s Laidley Field — the second practice away from Morgantown this spring after traveling to Wheeling last month — it was the first time many of the players had put eyes on the golden dome of the capitol building.
“I had never been to Charleston,” said junior safety K.J. Dillon, who has spent two years at the state’s flagship institution since graduating from Apopka Hihg School in Florida. “We wanted to come on the road and see the fans, see part of West Virginia we had never seen before.”
Thousands of fans, most of them natives of the southern part of the Mountain State, turned out to welcome WVU to town on Saturday, a reception head coach Dana Holgorsen said didn’t go unnoticed.
“With this being the University of Charleston, we could advertise and do an autograph session, so I think the majority of our guys understand what this means to the people of the state of West Virginia and how much excitement there is surrounding what they’ve done,” he said. “We’ve made that very well-known, and we’re working hard to rectify a 4-8 season, that’s for sure.”
For the 15 state natives on WVU’s spring roster — including Shady Spring graduate Houstin Syvertson (a walk-on punter) and Greenbrier West graduate Zach Johnson (a walk-on offensive lineman) — a trip to Charleston was nothing new. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t special, especially for George Washington High School graduate Cody Clay.
“Driving back through here on the bus, everyone was just kind of looking around, and I’m just thinking that this is where I come from,” said the junior fullback/tight end, who caught nine passes for 73 yards and a touchdown last season. “It was exciting for me.
“I played every home game (at Laidley Field) until I was a junior, when we got our field fixed up. It was fun. I was telling all of the guys that.”
After a down year that saw WVU finish seventh out of 10 Big 12 teams in scoring offense and fifth in total offense — statistically the worst season in the coaching careers of Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson — the staff is hopeful that the Mountaineers are ready to get back close to the top of the league. That’s exactly where they were in WVU’s inaugural Big 12 season with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey leading the way.
“I think as far as offense all-around, we’re more suited (for the Big 12),” said Dawson, the only remaining assistant from Hologrsen’s original WVU staff that led the Mountaineers to a 2012 Orange Bowl victory n their last season as Big East members. “We’re deeper; we’ve got some experienced guys that have played. I think we have 20-something guys who have played in Big 12 games. I don’t think we could have said that the last couple years. With experience, I think we’re ready.”
Dawson said the biggest question is at quarterback, where Paul Millard and junior college transfer Skyler Howard are battling for the top spot this spring. Clint Trickett, who started the majority of last year’s games, will be added to the mix in the summer after he recovers from shoulder surgery.
“The quarterback has to perform well,” said Dawson. “We’re going to put someone in there that can do it. I’m not saying anything positive or negative about any of those guys. That’s just the fact of the matter.”
On the other side of the ball, WVU has an even bigger improvement to make after its defense gave up 33.3 points and 455 yards per game last season, ranking next-to-last in the conference in both categories.
With a new defensive coordinator, Tony Gibson, and the addition of former Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley to the staff, along with former WVU linebacker Damon Cogdell, there seems to be a new attitude for the Mountaineer defense.
Junior linebacker Isaiah Bruce believes that will lead to better results.
“As long as we can find 11 people running to the ball as hard as they can, it doesn’t matter if they are all linebackers or safeties,” he said. “We want everyone to be on the same page and not do too much thinking. We want the thinking to happen before the ball is snapped.”
WVU will practice back in Morgantown today at 4 p.m. It will hold drills Tuesday and Thursday, as well, before concluding the spring with the annual Gold-Blue Spring Game on Saturday.
That scrimmage will begin at 1 p.m. at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Tickets are $10 each and can be purchased online at www.wvugame.com or by calling 1-800-WVU-GAME. The proceeds will benefit the WVU Children’s Hospital, which has received more than $700,000 from the Mountaineers over the past 29 years.
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