Published November 20, 2014
With nine starters back on defense and running back Noel Devine returning behind a veteran offensive line, the Mountaineers are looking to regain Big East bragging rights after a two-year hiatus.
First, West Virginia must endure the bumps that come with breaking in yet another new starting quarterback, the third in Stewart's three seasons as coach.
"We have a lot of potential, but we sure have a long way to go," Stewart said.
Bumps are becoming a common theme in the Mountaineer camp with the regular season still a few weeks away.
This month, the NCAA cited West Virginia for five major and one secondary rules violations from 2005 to 2009 involving non-coaching staff working in coaching roles with players. The latter two years came under Stewart's watch.
"That is not on our mind," Stewart said. "This football team, led by Bill Stewart, our staff and seniors, is going to concentrate on the 2010 season with full effort. We will not talk about it anymore."
If that wasn't enough, some players wore lightweight shoulder pads during the first two days of practice, even though NCAA rules stipulate shoulder pads couldn't be worn until the third day. WVU plans to self-report the violation.
It's not the way anyone in Morgantown, W.Va., hoped the season would start, especially if Stewart wants to impress new athletic director Oliver Luck, who took over in July.
Luck pledged his full support for Stewart in the earlier NCAA probe but also indicates he wants to take time to review the entire football program.
Despite going 18-8 in two seasons, Stewart is the lowest-paid coach in the Big East. He's entering the third year of a six-year contract signed in September 2008 that pays him $900,000 this season. Stewart has yet to receive a contract extension.
Winning would help.
West Virginia fans became spoiled with five shared or outright Big East titles under Rodriguez — and none since he left in December 2007. Stewart's detractors became more numerous last year when the offense struggled behind Jarrett Brown.
Now, it turns to the unknown — quarterback Geno Smith played in five games as a freshman, completing 65 percent of his passes for 309 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He missed spring practice while recovering from a broken foot that required surgery.
"Geno is out there to prove himself," Stewart said. "Geno Smith is every bit of a competitor that we have ever had. I believe that all quarterbacks are that type of men, but I would put him at the top of the list."
Smith needs to stay healthy for no reason other than two freshmen are competing for the backup job.
At least he has Devine to take away some of the pressure.
Devine rushed for 1,465 yards as a junior. He's fifth on the school's career rushing list and needs 1,784 yards to overtake Avon Cobourne, who set the school record of 5,164 yards from 1999-2002.
Despite four of five starters back on the line, Stewart doesn't want to overwork the 180-pound Devine and will try to get the ball to Jock Sanders, who led the team a year ago with 72 catches for 688 yards and three TDs.
Both Devine and Sanders — who needs 55 catches to become the school's all-time leading receiver — decided against entering the NFL draft in April and returned for their senior seasons.
Beyond the pair, there aren't many big-time ballhandlers.
Fullback Ryan Clarke ran for 250 yards last year, while Brad Starks is the only other returning wide receiver with more than 20 catches.
Others who could become targets for Smith include sophomore Tavon Austin and two of Smith's high school teammates, redshirt freshman Stedman Bailey and freshman Ivan McCartney.
The Mountaineers, who averaged just 12 points per game after halftime a year ago, may have to rely on a veteran defense until Smith becomes established.
The 3-3-5 defense that had a Big East-best 17 interceptions returns nine starters. The lone departures were filled by senior Anthony Leonard (23 tackles) at linebacker and freshman Terence Garvin at safety.
The 6-3 Garvin adds wingspan in a secondary that already includes 6-5 junior Robert Sands, who had five interceptions to lead the conference despite being stripped of his starting safety spot for the first four games.
Scooter Berry, Chris Neild and Julian Miller anchor the line and junior college transfer Bruce Irvin should help out with the pass rush.
Going unbeaten at home for the second straight year may be asking a bit much from the Mountaineers, who previously did it in 1993. But they do play five of their first seven games at home and the toughest early test will come Sept. 25 at LSU.
This year's Backyard Brawl at Pittsburgh's Heinz Field could determine the league's BCS representative if the Mountaineers can get past Cincinnati for the first time since 2007.
"This is my senior year," Devine said, "and I'm just trying to enjoy everything and embrace it all."