WVU players say lack of leadership ruined last season
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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, West Virginia last season had players who combined to set or tie 121 school records, pace an offense that averaged 39.4 points per game and go on to be high NFL Draft picks.
But it's what the Mountaineers lacked, several players say, that had them sputtering to a 7-6 finish.
“Last year we didn't have, you know, a lot of leadership,” junior running back Dustin Garrison said.
That's a sentiment echoed by more than a handful of players during the first week of training camp in advance of West Virginia's second season in the Big 12.
With Dana Holgorsen's third season as head coach kicking off in less than three weeks, West Virginia vows leadership won't be an issue.
“I feel like last year, we fell apart,” junior running back Andrew Buie said. “At certain moments where we needed to be a team, we weren't a team. So that was a big thing that (Holgorsen) preached all offseason: Team. Team. Team. I honestly feel like as a whole team offensively, defensively and with special teams, we're more of a unit as a team. More together.”
While the Mountaineers last year at this time were ranked No. 11 and considered conference championship contenders, this season they were picked third-to-last in the Big 12 media preseason poll.
That drop-off is due in part to a five-game losing streak last season that followed a 5-0 start. Much of the blame falls on a porous defense that allowed 49.6 points during that skid, but the benefit of hindsight has some of the Mountaineers' top returnees pointing the finger at something largely more intangible.
“What's different this year is we're more a team,” junior offensive lineman Quinton Spain said. “There ain't no I's; we don't depend on nobody. We just depend on all of us at once as a team. So I think this year will be better than last year.
“There wasn't no team. I could say there was a team early, but once we started losing we saw the I's come up, so it just hurt the team worse.”
Holgorsen raised eyebrows when during a news conference last week he said, “We have to develop leaders. It was a big issue on last year's team — in a bad way.”
The following day, several players corroborated Holgorsen's view.
“We just weren't all together,” senior offensive lineman Pat Eger said. “And that was a problem.”
“Everyone was playing for the team, but everyone wasn't fully there” senior defensive tackle Will Clarke said. “All the guys on the team weren't there — but now we have more of a team-emphasized basis.”
No players specifically mentioned last season's upperclassmen who they felt should have carried the mantle. There's no indication that Smith, a quarterback drafted in the second round by the New York Jets, or Austin and Bailey, receivers taken by the St. Louis Rams in the first and third rounds, respectively, are being blamed for the late-season collapse that saw the Mountaineers fall from a No. 5 ranking to six losses in their final eight games.
But while last season's team was built around stars, the strength of this season's Mountaineers might be their depth. That indirectly might aid in building chemistry, intangibles and leadership.
“I just feel like across the board there's no one person on the team who stands out more than any other,” said Clarke, an Allderdice alumnus who has 22 career starts.
“There's not one person who's getting a lot more media coverage or this much attention from certain national attention than the rest of us. We're all pretty much on the same level. We're all using that to try to just work together.”
Junior linebacker Jared Butler said “absolutely, hands-down” that West Virginia's intangibles and work ethic have improved since last season. Sophomore wide receiver K.J. Myers said, “We're a lot more team.”
Asked if he agreed with a teammates' assertion that this season's offense might end up being better than the one that ranked 10th nationally, Myers said: “I totally agree. There's more depth, and you can really trust more people right now. You know how there was the focal point of those athletes from last year — of course, the big names — but we have more weapons now.”
Last season, the Mountaineers had an two-time all-conference returnee at quarterback in Smith. During this camp, three players are vying for the starting job. One of them, Clint Trickett, acknowledged that the coaches are evaluating the quarterbacks for their leadership as much as for their arm strength, accuracy and mastery of the playbook.
It took enduring the adversity of a late-season collapse for West Virginia to fully embrace the value of leadership.
“Right after the Texas game (that improved WVU to 5-0) for the rest of the season, it just sucked the life out of us,” Eger said. “People weren't on the same page, and we really took from that and learned from that. We know if we stick together this year and we all trust and buy into the plan and we're all in for the plan and the hopes it has, we're going to achieve our goals.”
Chris Adamski is a freelance writer.
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