MORGANTOWN — Expectations rarely have been higher as West Virginia University opens spring football practice today at Mountaineer Field/Milan Puskar Stadium.

Because of last year’s 11-1 record, including the stunning 38-35 upset of SEC champion Georgia in the Nokia Sugar Bowl, most observers nationally already are ranking the Mountaineers as a Top 5 team in 2006.

Of course, another major factor in such reasoning is that coach Rich Rodriguez has 32 holdover players who have started one or more games.

WVU is seeking at least a share of its fourth consecutive Big East championship and hopes to be in the national title running.

Rodriguez is urging his players to “stay humble, but stay hungry” in his sixth year at the helm.

“I’m not sorry that there are (high) expectations,” he said. “There should be expectations when you’ve worked to build a program up and have had some success.”

Quarterback Pat White, tailback Steve Slaton and fullback Owen Schmitt return from last year’s backfield.

All-America center Dan Mozes again will anchor the offensive line, which also includes holdover starting guards Jeremy Sheffey and Ryan Stanchek.

Brandon Barrett, Rayshawn Bolden, Jeremy Bruce, Dorrell Jalloh, Darius Reynaud, Vaughn Rivers and Dwayne Thompson are wide receivers with starting experience.

Senior Jason Colson has been a regular at both tailback and wideout. In addition, Pernell Williams shows six starts as a tailback.

Tight ends with starts are Brad Palmer and Michael Villagrana.

Slaton, voted Big East Rookie of the Year and also Sugar Bowl MVP, rushed for 1,128 yards last season as a Freshman All-America star.

Too, he scored 19 touchdowns.

“Steve had a tremendous first year, but he can be even better,” Rodriguez predicts.

White, another rookie in 2005, established himself as one of the nation’s most productive signal-callers. He rushed for a Big East quarterback-record 952 yards and seven scores and passed for 828 yards and eight TDs.

Rodriguez noted, “Pat is very explosive and shows a lot of leadership on the field. He is well-versed in all possibilities, and he continues to grow as a quarterback.”

Junior Adam Bednarik is experienced, healthy and ready to compete at quarterback. Redshirt freshmen Jarrett Brown, T.J. Mitchell and Nate Sowers also will be in the mix.

Fullback Schmitt, a junior, excelled as both a blocker and runner (380 yards, two TDs) as a newcomer sophomore in 2005.

Developing two starting offensive tackles will be a task. Those and backups at all line positions could come from among Chris Bassler, Jake Figner, Damien Crissey, Mike Dent, John Bradshaw, Greg Isdaner and Jon Walko.

WVU’s biggest rebuilding on defense will be in the depleted secondary. Only Eric Wicks, Antonio Lewis, Larry Williams and Ridwan Malik have starter experience.

Other lettermen at the corner and safety slots are Abraham Jones, Marcus Law, Tyler Benoit, Akeem Jackson, Aaron Meckstroth and Charles Pugh.

Keilen Dykes, Pat Liebig, Craig Wilson and Warren Young have starting experience along the defensive line.

Kevin McLee, Jay Henry and Marc Magro have one or more starts at the linebacking positions. Bobby Hathaway, John Holmes, Monty Ivy and Reed Williams lettered last season in reserve roles.

Place-kicker Pat McAfee and snapper Tim Lindsey are returning specialists.

In all, WVU has a total of 51 lettermen — 25 on offense, 24 on defense and the two special teamers.

Under NCAA rules, West Virginia may have 15 practice sessions this spring. The annual Gold/Blue intrasquad game will be played Saturday, April 15.

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