West Virginia Mountaineers at a glance
Coach: Dana Holgorsen
Coach Year at school: 2nd
2011 record: 10-3, 5-2 Big East
Last year vs. KU: Did not play. The two teams have met once: WVU defeated KU, 21-0, on Nov. 8, 1941, in Morgantown, W.V.
Returning starters: 16
Impact newcomers: Jordan Thompson, 5-8, 160, WR; Carl Joseph, 5-10, 196, S.
Key games: Sept. 29 vs. Baylor; Oct. 6 at Texas; Nov. 17 vs. Oklahoma.
Vs. Kansas: Dec. 1 in Morgantown, W.V.
Note: This story is a part of the 2012 KU football preview section that appears in Sunday's Journal-World.
On the surface, West Virginia looks like a perfect fit as a new member of the Big 12 Conference.
Like many other schools in the league, the Mountaineers feature a potent passing offense to go with a good but not great defense.
WVU showed its potential in the final game of last season, rolling Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl.
In that game, WVU quarterback Geno Smith set a new Orange Bowl record with 401 passing yards to go with seven total touchdowns.
Smith, who threw for 4,385 yards and 31 touchdowns a year ago, was selected by media members as the preseason Big 12 offensive player of the year.
“It sounds like everybody in the room thinks that we’re pretty good, or that Geno is pretty good,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said at Big 12 media days in July. “It’s a compliment to Geno. I think a lot is based on what happened the last game of the year.”
If history is any indication, Smith could be set up for even bigger numbers in 2012.
Holgorsen, who enters his second season as head man at WVU, has seen past QBs improve dramatically in their second years under his watch.
While Holgorsen was offensive coordinator at Texas Tech, Graham Harrell increased his output by 1,250 yards and 10 touchdowns in his second season. Houston’s Case Keenum also saw a similar improvement, as he added 588 additional passing yards in Year Two under Holgorsen.
“You can just see Geno with a little bit more confidence right now. (The offense) makes more sense to him,” Holgorsen said. “ ... There should be improvement (on offense). If not, we’re not doing a very good job offensively as coaches.”
West Virginia’s receivers are another reason for optimism, as the Mountaineers return two players that eclipsed 1,000 yards a year ago.
Five-foot-9 senior Tavon Austin is a preseason All-Big 12 pick after contributing 101 catches for 1,186 yards with eight touchdowns, while 5-foot-10 junior Steadman Bailey’s numbers were just as impressive: 72 receptions for 1,279 yards with 12 scores.
WVU also returns its top two running backs in Dustin Garrison and Shawne Alston and an experienced offensive line led by first-team All-Big East center Joe Madsen.
“We’re not going to win games with Geno and Geno alone,” Holgorsen said. “He’s got to have a whole bunch of guys around him that make plays and that understand the offense, and that’s how you get good offensively.”
The biggest concern once again will be the defense, which allowed too many big rushing plays a year ago.
West Virginia’s opponents combined for five 50-plus-yard runs in 2011; only 12 teams in Div. I surrendered more 50-plus-yard runs than that.
The Mountaineers also lost some of their best defensive talent from a year ago, including defensive end Bruce Irvin (8.5 sacks), cornerback Keith Tandy (four interceptions) and linebacker Najee Goode (65 tackles).
“Those were some guys that we leaned on last year. And through those guys I got the beat of the entire defense and we were able to win some football games because of it,” Holgorsen said. “So that’s going to be our challenge now. And everybody’s dealing with the same thing. Everybody loses guys and each year you line up and you get in camp and you practice and you figure out who those guys are and then you lean on them.”