The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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April 14, 2014

Much still to be answered this fall

In Saturday’s paper, I compiled a list of five things to watch at West Virginia University’s annual Gold-Blue Spring Game. Now, after watching the football scrimmage that concluded this year’s spring drills and taking some time to process what I saw, it’s time to go back and revisit those five points and how they turned out on Saturday.

1. Quarterbacks — Not much has changed here. The quarterback spot is still the biggest question mark heading into the fall — other than whether there will be any new uniform changes.

Paul Millard did some good things Saturday. He was 14 for 19 for 129 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and he didn’t throw an interception. He was sacked only once and protected the football.

But Millard also missed a few short throws early, something with which he’s often struggled. He threw a couple nice deep balls, but the short game, which is so much of Dana Holgorsen’s offense, just didn’t look as good. He threw a couple of passes to the sidelines that Yao Ming couldn’t have caught if he was standing on Shaquille O’Neal’s shoulders. Millard also has the mobility of a Hoveround with a dead battery, which could be a problem with unproven offensive tackles.

For the most part, Millard was solid Saturday, but the coaches already know what they have in him. If the senior-to-be was the answer, wouldn’t he have already won the job?

Junior college transfer Skyler Howard also did some good things, completing 9 of 13 passes for 70 yards and a touchdown, but he didn’t show much of an ability to stretch the field. His longest completion went for just 17 yards.

Howard does have the ability to move around a little and appears to have a strong arm, but he didn’t exactly jump out and make Mountaineer fans believe they had found the next Geno Smith.

After watching the spring game, I am of the opinion that the quarterback job is still Clint Trickett’s to lose, and the success at that position depends on how much more of an understanding of the offense he can develop this offseason and whether his Ichabod Crane frame can take the punishment of being a starter for the entire season.

2. Running backs — I still believe this is going to be a major area of strength for the 2014 Mountaineers. Dustin Garrison looked as close to the back that set records as a freshman in 2011 as he has any time since, rushing for 47 yards on 10 carries. Wendell Smallwood looks to be a star in the making as he rushed for 45 yards on 10 carries and caught two passes for 39 yards. Rushel Shell is still learning, but he definitely has the talent, and Andrew Buie is working his way back into form after missing the 2013 season.

As expected, Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson are using some of the backs in the slot, giving them more weapons on the field at the same time. Smallwood, Buie and Shel all lined up as receivers at times, and all have shown the ability to catch the football and make plays after the catch. If Holgorsen and Dawson can keep all of the backs happy, WVU is going to get plenty of production from the guys in the backfield.

3. Defensive scheme — As expected, there were a few changes here. Perhaps the most interesting one was a third down package that had all 11 defenders on their feet at the time the ball was snapped. First-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said the purpose is to give the defenders a better look at the offense and put as many athletes as possible on the field at once against the Big 12’s spread attacks.

Overall, the defense just looked faster, and the secondary looked much improved. I would be surprised if the Mountaineers are again in the bottom third of the country when it comes to team defense. Opponents should at least know there’s somebody on the other side of the field this season.

4. Offensive tackles — Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas seemed to hold their own for the most part on the ends. WVU quarterbacks were sacked just three times Saturday, and not all of those came against the first-team line. When the Mountaineers tried to throw deep, the quarterbacks usually had plenty of time to let the play develop.

Run blocking was a much bigger concern. Often, WVU backs had a defender in their face the second they grabbed the football. Running outside was especially difficult as defenders swarmed the ball carriers like ants on a piece of apple pie. Both the tackles and the receivers are going to have to do a better job on the edge if WVU’s running game is ever going to reach its full potential.

5. Buzz — Maybe it was just the temperatures in the 70s that had so many in a good mood, but it didn’t seem as though Mountaineer fans had given up on their team yet after a disappointing finish in 2012 and a disastrous 2013.

Approximately 10,000 supporters showed up for Saturday’s scrimmage and most seemed genuinely excited about the future. There were a few groans at times, and plenty of talk about Holgorsen’s future, in the stands, but nobody seemed ready to trade his or her WVU jersey for a Pitt jersey.

Still, the WVU football program is walking dangerously close to the edge in this area. Put up a good showing against Alabama in the opener, and fans should stay on board. But play the role of Georgia State against Nick Saban’s crew at the Georgia Dome, and Mountaineer Field may suddenly become as empty as a Justin Bieber concert at a biker rally.

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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