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Gold-Blue game not end point for West Virginia football team

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3 things to watch

The QB scramble

Three quarterbacks started for the Mountaineers in 2013. Clint Trickett and Paul Millard are back, but only Millard practiced this spring with Trickett sidelined after shoulder surgery. Millard looked good at times, as did junior college transfer Skyler Howard, and both will get first-team reps in the spring game. One might get a leg up heading into fall camp, but that's where the competition will be decided, with Trickett on hand and the arrival of highly-touted freshman William Crest.

Can defense improve?

Tony Gibson is the fourth defensive coordinator in four years, and former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley will impart his wisdom. Last season, the Mountaineers were abysmal, prompting Gibson and coach Dana Holgorsen to state early and often this spring that the 3-4 and 3-3-5 alignments will be simplified this season. All of this is fine, but it still comes down to talent.

A crowded backfield

Having a full committee of ball carriers is not a bad thing. Gaining the most recent notoriety is Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, who already has come a long way, coaches said. But there also is Dreamius Smith, the leading returning rusher; Andrew Buie, the top runner in 2012 who left school for a semester and redshirted last season; and 5-foot-8 Dustin Garrison, the top runner in 2011 before his career was knocked off track by injuries. He's looked great this spring. The versatile Wendell Smallwood also is in the mix.

'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Friday, April 11, 2014, 11:02 p.m.
 

West Virginia's spring football practice ends Saturday with the Gold-Blue game at Milan Puskar Stadium.

Several thousand people will be there, with more fans watching on TV. But what will that — or all 15 practice sessions — mean by the time the Mountaineers tee it up for real against Alabama on Aug. 30 in Atlanta's Georgia Dome?

Here's a clue: After the spring game two years ago, WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said, “To sum it up, we're about 33 percent into how we're going to look before we play our first game.”

In other words, spring ball gave little indication of what was ahead. And that was a team with future NFL players Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey on offense. Perhaps less is known about the 2014 Mountaineers at this point.

The game airs live at 1 p.m., with a noon pregame show on several West Virginia Media stations throughout the state. Smith, the New York Jets' starting quarterback (for now), and St. Louis Rams receivers Austin and Bailey are scheduled to be part of the telecast, serving as reminders of the not-so-distant past when WVU went 10-3 in 2011, beating Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl.

The Mountaineers went 7-6 in 2012 and 4-8 (2-7 Big 12) last season.

The spring has been marked by position battles and coaching changes. Former longtime Penn State assistant Tom Bradley was hired as senior associate head coach and defensive line coach, and former safeties coach Tony Gibson is the defensive coordinator.

Although quarterbacks Clint Trickett and Paul Millard, who shared the job last season, return, Holgorsen declared the position open. Spring practice likely won't affect that, especially with Trickett on the sideline after shoulder surgery and top recruit William Crest still in high school.

Injuries stripped the defense last season, but that was only a partial excuse for a unit that yielded averages of 455 yards (101st out of 123 FBS programs) and 33.3 points (tied for 99th). West Virginia played a 3-4 defense with different looks and variations, including a 3-3-5 alignment. It remains to be seen whether the personnel will be better, but changes already have been made within the 3-4 framework.

“Last year, it was too multiple,” Holgorsen said. “The one thing Tony has done a good job with is getting it a little more simplified. ... I've been really impressed with how quick they line up. We face so many high-tempo offenses that we need to be able to do that. I think they're doing an excellent job with that right now.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bcohn@tribweb.com or via Twitter@BCohn_Trib.

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