By John Raby
AP Sports Writer
A few weeks back, West Virginia handed out a depth chart for its spring football practices. Minutes later, the coaching staff told a group of reporters to ignore it.
The Mountaineers begin practice on Wednesday with the notion that no job is safe on either side of the ball in coach Bill Stewart’s final spring session.
Quarterback Geno Smith wouldn’t have it any other way under new offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, who will replace Stewart as head coach in 2012 and called the current depth chart only “a good starting point.”
The Mountaineers went 9-4 for the third straight season and lost to North Carolina State in the Champ Sports Bowl. They’ll begin the task of finding replacements for third all-time leading rusher Noel Devine, all-time leading receiver Jock Sanders, and seven starters on defense.
Smith is coming off foot surgery in January and has proclaimed himself ready to compete with two early enrollees, freshmen Brian Athey and Paul Millard
“My job is open,” Smith said. “I’m not the type of guy who’s going to take anything for granted. I’m going to go out there and work like it’s my freshman year.”
Holgorsen is installing his up-tempo approach from Oklahoma State, which scored at least 33 points 11 times in his only season with the Cowboys and was among the nation’s leaders in total offense.
“We teach them to play fast,” Holgorsen said. “That has a lot of meanings to it. It starts with substitutions. You’ve got to get on and off the field. You’ve got to be able to communicate. You’ve got to make calls.
“If it looks lethargic, then we’ll play lethargic.”
Holgorsen said he’s told Athey and Millard that “their job’s to beat Geno out,” although Smith has the upper hand based on his accomplishments.
In his first season as a starter, Smith threw for 2,763 yards and 24 scores — both the second most in a season in school history — with just seven interceptions.
“I fully expect him to be the starter,” Holgorsen said.
But Holgorsen pointed out that in the third practice last spring at Oklahoma State, he moved quarterback Brandon Weeden from starter to backup “because he didn’t do very good.” Weeden went on to earn all-Big 12 honors in 2010.
“If Geno’s out there and he’s throwing interceptions and he’s not going where I want him to go with the ball, I’m going to put somebody else in there,” Holgorsen said. “That ain’t no different than any other position.”
Holgorsen is installing a two-running back set. The Mountaineers used primarily one running back under previous systems.
Those battling for spots include veterans Shawne Alston, Trey Johnson, Ryan Clarke and Matt Lindamood. They combined for one-third of the team’s carries last season and 664 yards. Vernard Roberts, a freshman from Washington, D.C., who enrolled in January, also could contribute.
Holgorsen said he might consider moving wide receiver Tavon Austin to running back, where he played in high school. First, Holgorsen would like to get a look at the skills of Austin, who had 58 catches for a team-leading 787 yards and carried 16 times for 161 yards.
Two running back recruits, Andrew Buie of Jacksonville, Fla., and Dustin Garrison, of Pearland, Texas, also are expected to join the team for fall practices.
“We’ve got a couple of guys that we recruited that are Tavon Austin-kind of guys,” Holgorsen said. “They’re lighter on their feet-type guys. But when we get them in camp, then those are guys we’ll be able to move around.
“I like recruiting those kind of guys that can play slot receiver-running back because the closer you are to the ball, the more you’re going to touch it.”
One point of emphasis will be holding onto it.
Robert Gillespie, who followed Holgorsen from Oklahoma State as the running backs coach, needed no reminder that
West Virginia fumbled the ball 30 times in 2010, losing 20 of them.
“The two most important things a running back does is protect the football and protect the quarterback,” Gillespie said. “Running with the ball is something that comes natural. The guys that fumble won’t play. When you fumble and turn the ball over, you lose games.”
Holgorsen wants to develop depth at wide receiver. Besides Austin, only three other returnees, Stedman Bailey, Brad Starks and J.D. Woods, caught more than 10 passes last season.
The annual Blue-Gold game will be played on April 29.