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March 21, 2006
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia is dealing with a double-edged sword entering spring football practice.
The Mountaineers, coming off their biggest postseason win ever in the Sugar Bowl, are getting national exposure, but also could be nationally exposed. They opened spring drills Monday with elevated expectations and little idea of what it is like to deal with them for the second time in three years.
In 2004, WVU was picked to win the Big East and finish in the top five in the country. It went 8-4 after losing its final three games. Last season, the Mountaineers were picked behind newcomer Louisville and rival Pitt, yet defeated both to win their first outright conference title since 1993, then shocked No. 7 Georgia 38-35 to finish 11-1 and fifth in the nation.
Now WVU is being mentioned as a possible national title contender next fall.
The newfound glamour certainly helps recruiting. But for a program that came off its first major bowl win ever, and just its second postseason victory in 21 years, the challenges and changes are daunting.
''I want our guys to feel good about last year,'' WVU coach Rich Rodriguez said. ''But any play made last year against Georgia or Louisville won't help us get a first down versus Marshall. The 2006 season is upon us, and we're 0-0.''
Rodriguez faces a balancing act of sorts. He must keep a team loaded with young talent humble in the face of a severe media buildup - WVU's April 15 spring game will be nationally televised via tape delay for the first time ever - but hungry enough to work during a seemingly down time in college football.
''People are going to try to build them up in the media and on campus,'' Rodriguez said. ''I keep telling them they already live in glass houses, being football players. Now that glass is getting a good cleaning. People are going to see them. They have to stay hungry and want it.''
Rodriguez stressed that spring drills are a time for developing newcomers, as well as building upon the success of redshirt freshman quarterback Pat White and true freshman Steve Slaton, the Sugar Bowl MVP.
West Virginia also lost a hefty portion of its defensive backfield to graduation, and will work in players that became eligible to practice in January after being in the program and attending school during the fall.
The Mountaineers also must worry about backup quarterback Adam Bednarik's shoulder, which has not healed as well as anticipated and might need season-ending surgery. And the school can no longer recruit Prop 48 players - those that either made good enough grades or test scores, but not both - because of a Big East rule change.
''Hey, we have a lot of guys back,'' Rodriguez said. ''And we can't run guys out of here. They love going to bowl games and getting those gifts. But I am approaching it the same. I am anxious to see how much better our guys can get. Everybody that we played (in the Big East) had a young team last year. We played pretty well, but there are always areas to improve.''
It's also difficult to predict how the 2005 season's success will translate. West Virginia won games with as many as five new players in the offensive skill slots alone. Now, with additional experience and a more veteran roster, it should be able to better that mark.
Yet WVU hasn't built itself into a perennial power, and lacks the depth, in-state recruiting and monetary resources of other teams. So it even starts out as an underdog in many ways.
''Consistent teams, teams in the top 10, deal with it every year,'' Rodriguez said. ''It should be part of our program.
''But I don't know how you compare any teams. It perennially changes, and still all coaches have high expectations. And West Virginia folks are eternally optimistic. One writer puts you in the Top 10 and suddenly you are competing for a national title.''For more coverage of the West Virginia Mountaineers, check out WVSports.com.