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Search for a QB begins

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For Dana Holgorsen, the 15 West Virginia spring practices that begin Sunday will be kind of nostalgic.

No, it's not a chance to work with old friends or anything like that, although sprinkled throughout his roster are some familiar faces. Contrary to the general perception, it isn't a complete rebuilding job he faces in his third season as the WVU coach.

But as far as the marquee skill positions are concerned, well, yes, this is going to take a complete overhaul. It includes rebuilding a wide receiver corps that lost arguably the best 1-2 punch in college football last season in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

More significant than that, though, is the task of replacing three-year starter Geno Smith at quarterback. No matter who ultimately wins the job, it means replacing the most productive passer - by far - in school history and a guy who in the last two seasons managed to get a handle on Holgorsen's offense perhaps better than any quarterback he's ever had.

And that's where the nostalgia comes in. It's been quite some time since Holgorsen had to first find and then train a new signal caller.

"This is the first quarterback competition I've had personally since my first year in Houston,'' said Holgorsen, whose first year as the offensive coordinator there was 2008. "I'm kind of excited about it.''

Indeed, in the years since then, Holgorsen has trained quarterbacks in his system, but he's never had to basically conduct tryouts to find the guy he thinks is best suited to train. When he arrived at West Virginia, Smith was the clear-cut best quarterback on the roster and a guy perfectly suited to Holgorsen's style. Before that, he showed up at Oklahoma State as the offensive coordinator and was presented with Brandon Weeden, a mature former professional baseball player who was obviously best suited for the job.

And in his second and last year as the offensive coordinator at Houston, he had Case Keenum, who would wind up as one of the most prolific passers in college football history.

It was only the year before that, when Keenum was an unknown, that Holgorsen faced the task of selecting someone from a crowd.

"It was 15 practices in the spring and 15 more in August before we made that decision,'' Holgorsen said.

This time around, the candidates are pretty clear cut, but only one has ever taken a college snap and never under any real prolonged pressure. Junior Paul Millard, who has been Smith's backup the last two seasons, has thrown only a handful of passes and really only once when a game was in doubt. He relieved Smith for a play at Oklahoma State last season when Smith's helmet came off and Millard threw a fourth-down touchdown pass on the play.

The only other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster are redshirt freshman Ford Childress and true freshman Chavas Rawlins, who graduated early from high school in Monessen, Pa., and was one of five January enrollees among the freshman class.

The only other quarterback on the roster is walk-on Logan Moore from Fairmont, who actually has more college experience than any of the others, although it was as the starter at Division II Fairmont.

Holgorsen won't even speculate who might have the edge because he says no one does. He won't even say that one will be given more practice reps than the others.

"Paul has more experience and probably knows the offense better, but that doesn't mean we'll give him more reps,'' Holgorsen said. "It's not about where they are now. It's about where they are in six months. We're going to have lots of opportunities to evaluate these guys.''

Don't expect the process to be a quick one, either. The team has 15 practices, concluding with the public Gold-Blue scrimmage on April 20, but if there's a starter in place by then it will be a bit of a surprise. Holgorsen isn't one who wants a clear-cut leader, but rather a quarterback who has proven over time that he's the best.

"More than likely not,'' Holgorsen said when asked if he expected to have an answer to his quarterback puzzle by the end of spring. "Once spring is over there's a lot more opportunities.''

  • BRIEFLY: Holgorsen and his rebuilt coaching staff haven't made a lot of position changes, but at least one was necessary. The Mountaineers lost four-year starting center Joe Madsen and his backup for the last two years, guard Jeff Braun. Preferring a center at least with playing experience, Pat Eger will move to that spot. He played both tackle and guard last year. Eger, though, is recovering from an ankle injury and will be limited in spring drills.
  • At least six players will be either out of spring drills or limited to non-contact roles because of injuries. The two who are out are wide receiver Dante Campbell (shoulder) and cornerback Terrell Chestnut (knee), both of whom had surgery. Those limited to non-contact work are Eger (ankle), cornerback Avery Williams (neck), linebacker Jewone Snow (shoulder) and safety Wes Tonkery (foot).
  • The spring practice schedule is spread out over six weeks with one of those off for the school's spring break. Prior to break, the team will work out Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday for two weeks, then after the break the schedule will be Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday for three weeks.
  • The school has not announced a time for the spring game. It has been a night game the last two years.
  • Holgorsen hasn't hired an assistant to replace running backs coach Robert Gillespie, and wouldn't talk about it other than to say, "We'll hire a running backs coach.''
  • The school and the football program do seem to have found a perfect spot for former assistant coach Steve Dunlap. He will be the team's director of high school relations.
  • Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

     


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