By Cam Huffman
West Virginia University’s football players have seen the preseason polls. They’re well aware that the same writers, broadcasters and analysts who picked them to compete for Big 12 and national championships last fall are predicting an eighth-place finish in the Big 12, and possibly its first season without a bowl since 2001, this fall.
But a day after the Big 12 media representatives picked the Mountaineers above only Kansas and Iowa State in the preseason rankings, WVU players were doing everything but complaining.
“I really don’t look into any of that,” said junior wide receiver Connor Arlia Friday, while in Summersville with his teammates working on a community service project. “We know that if we control what we can control and work hard every day, we’ll be OK.”
In fact, the 5-foot-9 walk-on receiver from Class A Weirton Madonna High School is used to being doubted.
“It can be a motivator,” he said. “I’ve always embraced the underdog mentality.”
Dustin Garrison also thrives off of the doubters. The junior running back from Pearland, Texas, was told he was too small to play Division I football. He eventually got an offer from the Mountaineers, and in his freshman season in 2011 he rushed for 291 yards and two touchdowns on 32 carries against Bowling Green, the second-best single-game total in the country that season.
“I’ve been doubted ever since I’ve been playing football,” he said. “I was told I’d never get a D-I scholarship, because I was too small. So I’m used to that doubt. So I’ll help my team out as much as I can learning how to overcome that adversity.
“Coach Holgorsen does a good job of not letting stuff like that get to our heads. We see that stuff, but we just use it as motivation. A lot of people are going to doubt us, be we know we’re going to have a successful season.”
Quincy Wilson, WVU’s assistant director of football operations, believes the Mountaineers play best when they’re counted out.
He should know. The Weirton native played a key role in the 2002 season when WVU, coming off a 3-8 campaign in Rich Rodriguez’s first season as the head coach, was picked sixth in the eight-team Big East, ahead of only Temple and Rutgers.
After a 5-3 start to the season, WVU won its final four regular season games, including victories over No. 13 Virginia Tech and No. 17 Pitt to finish 9-3 and vault to No. 15 in the national polls, earning a berth in the Continental Tire Bowl against Virginia. The Mountaineers finished second in the Big East that season, behind only a Miami team that played for the national championship.
“We usually do great when people don’t expect much of us,” said Wilson. “Whether they’re telling you you’re going to be a top 5 team or in the bottom 5 in the whole country, you still have to go play the game.
“We missed that sometimes (last year). We thought we won the game before we got there. Now, the shoe’s on the other foot. We have to go out and perform, and anybody who is competitive is going to like that challenge.”
That’s exactly the approach being adopted by WVU sophomore linebacker Isaiah Bruce. A freshman All-American last season according to FoxSports.com and Phil Steele, Bruce ranked No. 12 in the Big 12 in total tackles and tied for No. 6 in fumbles recovered. Still, he was left off the preseason All-Big 12 squad released on Wednesday.
“It’s not too bad to be an underdog,” said the Jacksonville, Fla., native, explaining that he doesn’t even look at the preseason lists. “When people underestimate you, that’s when you can make them regret it the most.
“Eighth is not where we want to be, so we’re going to make that a big motivator. We’re going to still play our game and play for our fans.”
WVU, coming off a 7-6 finish in its inaugural season as a Big 12 member, will kick off the 2013 season at home against William & Mary on Aug. 31. The game is scheduled for a noon kickoff.
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