West Virginia enters the spring with aspirations of winning the Big East after a two-year absence from the BCS. With 19 returning starters, those goals aren't misplaced.
The Mountaineers have gone 10-4 in the Big East in the post-Rich Rodriguez era. They're tied for second with rival Pittsburgh for best league record in that two-year span, three wins behind two-time league champion Cincinnati. The Mountaineers should remain in contention in 2010 as well.
WEST VIRGINIA AT-A-GLANCE
West Virginia got a boost when Noel Devine decided to stay in school.
Coach: Bill Stewart Last season: 9-4 overall, 5-2 in the Big East. Lost 33-21 to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.
Spring dates: April 6-April 30
West Virginia received a boost for the 2010 season when running back Noel Devine and slot receiver Jock Sanders elected to stay in school rather than turn pro. The offense will be in good hands with those two smallish playmakers, but the Mountaineers still need to find a new starting quarterback.
The team will have its third starting quarterback in as many seasons, and it appears the decision won't be made until the fall on the winner of the Geno Smith-Coley White competition. Coley is the brother of former WVU star quarterback Pat White. Defensively, West Virginia returns nine starters but loses a leader in linebacker Reed Williams.
Here's a look at the Mountaineers as they prepare for spring practice. WVU will be the last "Big Six" school to open spring drills.
Positions of strength
West Virginia is intent on spreading the wealth among its receivers, but Devine has proven he can be a 20-carry player over the past two seasons (2,754 yards). He should be one of the most dynamic players in the nation once again. The Mountaineers return two of their top three receivers in Sanders and Bradley Starks. Four starters also return along the line. WVU could have a stout defense, especially up front. All three starting linemen return, led by all-conference NT Chris Neild and E Julian Miller (nine sacks). Those three starters don't include former starter Scooter Berry, who is out for the spring with a shoulder injury. If healthy and on the straight and narrow, Berry has all-league potential.
Help is needed
The big question is sophomore QB Geno Smith. He is expected to participate in spring drills, but a January foot injury will limit him to handing off and passing from the pocket. Smith subbed for an injured Jarrett Brown twice last season. He was 15-of-21 for 147 yards with a touchdown in a win over Marshall but struggled in the bowl loss to Florida State. Although nine starters return on the defense, WVU still has key spots to fill. LB Reed Williams made 68 tackles last season and was a key team leader. West Virginia also loses two "bandit" safeties, Boogie Allen and Nate Sowers, from its 3-3-5 alignment. Glover is expected to move to that spot.
Three guys to watch
FB Ryan Clarke: Although Devine is a proven No. 1 running back, he's not built to be a workhorse. With inexperience at quarterback, another productive runner could be a key to the season. Clarke, a sophomore, thrived as a short-yardage back (eight touchdowns last season) and as a blocker last season; his role could be expanded.
WR Logan Heastie: Returning receivers such as Sanders and Starks is good news for any team, but West Virginia plays in enough three- and four-receiver sets to need better numbers at this spot. Heastie was a top-50 prospect in the 2009 class before redshirting last season.
QB Coley White: Smith's injury should give White more opportunities to play with the first-string offense. Smith, a sophomore, was behind Brown and Smith on the depth chart last season. West Virginia fans are anxious to see what Pat White's little brother can do.
The pressure is on
?LB Anthony Leonard: He started at middle linebacker when Reed Williams was injured in 2008 and now has the chance to take the job full time as a senior. But he'll have to compete for the spot. Redshirt freshman Branko Busick was impressive on the scout team last season. Another redshirt, Najee Goode, is a backup at outside linebacker, but he also can play in the middle.
West Virginia enters spring practice with plenty of returning starters and talented redshirts, but also some key questions. The quarterback position might not be sorted out until the fall, and the Mountaineers are looking for veterans to replace Brown and Williams in the locker room.
David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.