By Cam Huffman
Whether it’s on ESPN, the pages of Sports Illustrated or The Register-Herald, every preseason preview for the 2012 West Virginia University football team begins with one name — Geno Smith.
It makes sense. The preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns and led the Mountaineers to an Orange Bowl championship, taking home the MVP trophy in the process.
With two full years as a starting quarterback and one in Dana Holgorsen’s quarterback-friendly offense in his pocket, it’s easy to assume that Smith will put up some numbers this season that will make video game enthusiasts jealous.
But what happens if Smith goes down? Who steps behind the center in the shotgun? Who gets the football in the hands of Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and who has to learn Holgorsen’s system of communicating with body gestures and facial expressions?
The answer is sophomore Paul Millard.
The Flower Mound, Texas, native put up some big numbers in high school, throwing for 4,491 yards and 47 touchdowns as a senior, but while Smith has thrown nearly 950 passes in his college career, Millard has tossed a grand total of 15 at WVU — one of them a touchdown pass, but two of them interceptions.
Imagining Smith going out with an injury probably keeps the Mountaineer coaches awake at night, but quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said Millard would be ready.
“I am comfortable with him if something were to happen to Geno,” he said. “He has thick skin. He is very good at playing in this system. I am confident in his skill set in this offense.
“Paul is to the point where he isn’t just communicating the play and handing the ball off. He is doing all of that, plus he is reading the defense. He is trying to find what is best for the offense. He has made a lot of strides.”
Millard admitted his freshman season wasn’t close to perfect, but he doesn’t necessarily see that as a negative.
“I learn from making mistakes and from doing something successful,” said the 6-foot-2, 220-pound signal caller. “You don’t want to repeat the mistakes, but you want to make sure you do the good things over and over again. It is a learning process. Good things, bad things, you learn from them all.”
A perfect example was Millard’s Orange Bowl experience.
With the Mountaineers holding a comfortable lead — 63-20 — over Clemson in the third quarter, Holgorsen turned to Millard in an attempt to keep from rubbing it in. After a handoff to Andrew Buie, Millard put the ball in the air for the first time, missing Ivan McCartney. Buie carried it again for two yards, but on third-and-10 Millard was intercepted by the Tigers’ Rashard Hall.
Smith was right back in the game on the next possession, and Millard didn’t make it back in until the clock ticked under six minutes with the Mountaineers leading 70-26.
“That was a pretty simple mistake,” Millard said of the pick. “We were running all verticals, and I just didn’t look off the safety. If I would have done that, it probably would have been successful.”
“Paul has that gunslinger mentality, which can get him in trouble sometimes,” said Spavital. “He is doing well. We are putting him in a lot of different situations. He has shown where he can step up and get the job done for us, but there are times where he is still experiencing difficulties on the learning curve. He needs to understand he can’t be as greedy sometimes, and that it is OK to check down to a receiver. Overall, I am very pleased with how he has progressed.”
Still, he’s not Smith, and Holgorsen admits that the offense wouldn’t be the same if a change had to be made.
“Heaven forbid ever having to be in that situation, to have to put them in with the first string,” said the second-year head coach. “Because Geno clearly makes everybody around him better. Both Ford (Childress, the third-team quarterback, who is expected to redshirt this season) and Paul, who rep with the first team, don’t necessarily make everyone around them better.”
The good news for the Mountaineers is that Holgorsen’s quarterbacks have a history of avoiding injuries.
Graham Harrell, who was Holgorsen’s quarterback at Texas Tech, where he was the offensive coordinator for Mike Leach, started 39 straight games from 2006 through 2008.
At Houston, Case Keenum was the top quarterback, and he played in every game of his career while Holgorsen was there.
In Holgorsen’s one year at Oklahoma State, Brandon Weeden was the starting quarterback in all 13 Cowboys games that season.
Smith stayed healthy throughout the 2011 season, his first under Holgorsen’s guidance, and all of Morgantown is keeping its fingers crossed that the trend will continue.
In the meantime, Millard will be keeping himself ready — just in case.
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