July 19, 2005

Mountaineers flying under radar this season

Newport, R.I. -- Only a few college football programs in the nation would characterize an 8-4 season, one that included a share of a conference championship, as a major disappointment.

West Virginia probably wouldn't register as one of the teams that typically could make such a claim. But the 2004 season was supposed to be a special one for the Mountaineers, although it never materialized.

Prior to the season, many felt West Virginia was a strong candidate to finish unbeaten and possibly sneak its way into the national title game. After all, Virginia Tech and Miami had moved to the ACC and coach Rich Rodriguez' team had elite and experienced talent on both sides of the ball.

But after a 4-0 start, a loss at Virginia Tech ended any hopes the Mountaineers had of playing for a national title.

West Virginia rebounded to win its next four to get to 8-1 on the season but then lost its final three games, including a 30-18 setback against Florida State in the Gator Bowl.

It was a bitter end to a season that began with so much promise.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about the end of last year," senior safety Jahmile Addae said Tuesday at the Big East media days. "But this season is the motivation now, and all you can do as a player is work hard and try to make sure it doesn't happen again."

The 2005 season will begin in completely different fashion.

With 14 starters and most of their marquis players gone from last season, the Mountaineers are flying completely under the national radar, and they are largely being overlooked in their on league.

Louisville and Pittsburgh are the prognosticators' picks to battle for the conference title, and that's just fine with West Virginia's players and coaches, who know all about the pressure that comes with high expectations.

"It feels different this year. The expectations should have been high last year because we had a veteran team," said Rodriguez, who's 28-21 in four years in Morgantown. "But our expectations will never change. We want to win the Big East championship first and foremost."

What can't be overlooked, however, is that the Mountaineers will play a large role in the outcome of the Big East this season.

First, they have the talent, albeit widely unproven, to compete with the Cardinals and Panthers, and second, Louisville and Pittsburgh will both have to travel to Morgantown this fall.

"We've got a lot of young kids, but we have talent, and that gives you a shot," Rodriguez said. "The work ethic and attitude will be very good, but our limited number of seniors has to give us some leadership.

"I really won't know what we have until August. I think you'd rather have it the other way (with more returning player). I know I'd get more sleep at night."

There are strengths for this West Virginia team, most notably at running back, defensive back and on the offensive line, which included preseason All-American Dan Mozes. But questions also abound, especially at quarterback and wide receiver.

Sophomore Adam Bednarik, slowed by offseason surgery, will head into summer practice as the starter under center.

"We have open competition at every position, but the quarterback position could go to any number of candidates," Rodriguez said. "We have seven guys that we'll look at."

Rodriguez also admitted that he has no idea who will emerge as the starting receivers.

West Virginia's leading returning receiver, senior Brandon Myles, had just six catches last season.

Another area of concern is linebacker, where all three starters from a year ago must be replaced.

Despite all the questions, the Mountaineers are ready to prove that the disappointment of 2004 will not carry into 2005, and they will get a chance to make a statement early in the season.

The opener at Syracuse will be critical, and then after what should be an easy win in week two against Wofford, West Virginia will head to College Park, Md., to battle rival Maryland.

A 3-0 start, which is possible, could pave the way for a highly successful season, but getting out of the gates at 1-2, also possible, could make for a long year in Morgantown.

"We've got a good group of younger guys," said Addae, who recorded 53 tackles and two interceptions last season. "Anytime you have athletes who are trying to prove themselves, good things can happen."

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