By Cam Huffman
Preseason practice is over, and although the West Virginia University football team won’t play a game until Aug. 31 when William & Mary comes to Morgantown, classes start today and the team will begin its regular season practice schedule this week.
What will happen between now and the end of the regular season in December is still a mystery, even to the players and coaches, but entering his third season on the WVU sidelines, head coach Dana Holgorsen is pleased with what his team accomplished over the 20 preseason practices.
Specifically, he believes his team has strengthened a major weakness by greatly improving on defense.
“I am happy with where we are at on all three sides of the ball, especially defensively,” said Holgorsen, who got his team off to a 5-0 start before a disappointing 7-6 finish last year, the Mountaineers’ first as members of the Big 12 Conference. “Our first group is really coming along, and it is where we have the most experience coming back. First team, we are really happy with, and the motivation level they are playing with is extremely satisfying.”
Why wouldn’t the defense be motivated? Last year’s group was, statistically, the worst in the school’s history, and it was a big reason why WVU limped to the finish instead of living up to preseason expectations as Big 12 title contenders.
“We are definitely way ahead of where we were (last year),” said Holgorsen. “We are talking about many of the same bodies, so we ought to be ahead of where we were last season.”
There is a risk in looking too much into what the defense has done in practice and the adjustment it has made with Keith Patterson now calling the shots as the defensive coordinator. Last year’s group was tested against three of the biggest offensive weapons to ever set foot on Mountaineer Field — quarterback Geno Smith and wide receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. This year, WVU is still trying to find its playmakers on offense.
“I hope, and you don’t know this until you actually start playing, that defensively we are ahead of last year based on coaching, experience and schemes,” said Holgorsen. “I hope it is not because we are inadequate on offense. How are you going to know, though, until you start playing?”
Patterson — who took over for Joe DeForest, who’s now focused only on special teams, following the regular season finale against Kansas last year — is also anxious to see how his unit performs against somebody wearing something other than gold and blue, but he believes a defense is made on the practice field.
“The picture for our players is that a diamond doesn’t become a diamond without intense heat and pressure,” said Patterson. “Maybe the politically correct way to put it is that we apply a lot of heat and pressure on our players and our coaches to try to get them uncomfortable and maintain that discipline when the bullets start flying on the field.
“I try to create chaos on the sidelines during practice. The way I see it, if I can create that environment and the players can still concentrate and carry out their assignments and know what their responsibilities are, then the game is going to be easy.”
And for Patterson, there’s still time to create those diamonds in the rough.
“Even though school is officially starting, to me, camp is still not over. We don’t have an opponent. We can continue to progress as a defense. We can continue to focus on us. Camp isn’t over for me.”
— E-mail: chuffman@
register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.