High-ranked West Virginia back to work
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - With five games on national television and its top-10 preseason rankings splashed across newsstands, All-American center Dan Mozes agrees West Virginia won't sneak up on any teams this season.
It's more likely they'll run over them.
"Everybody is going to be shooting for us this year, but at the same time we're going to be shooting for everybody else," Mozes said Saturday after the Mountaineers opened fall practice at Milan Puskar Stadium.
"We're going to take the same approach we took last year," he said.
West Virginia was supposed to be rebuilding last season but finished 11-1 and ranked No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll. The Mountaineers silenced most Big East Conference critics with a breakthrough, 38-35 victory over Georgia in the Sugar Bowl.
Despite leg-cramping temperatures, West Virginia went back to work with 51 returning lettermen, including 15 starters, from a team that led the Big East in rushing.
Nine starters return on offense, led by the conference's most explosive running backfield of quarterback Patrick White, tailback Steve Slaton and bulldozing 245-pound fullback Owen Schmitt.
"You have to let the rankings and expectations go in one ear and out the other," Mozes said. "We only lost one game last season, so we'll think of ourselves as underdogs again. We like that role."
Mountaineers coach Rich Rodriguez enters his sixth season with a 39-22 record while coming off his first outright Big East title. He led the Mountaineers to at least a share of the last three Big East titles.
"I don't know where we're picked this year, but if we're picked first, I hope they're right," Rodriguez said at the Big East media day.
Rodriguez said it was hard to predict anything based on yesterday's first practice.
"It was a typical opening practice," he said. "I thought the effort was pretty good. The execution was awful. We're not ready to play a game, but nobody is at this point. It's a starting point."
Rodriguez said he had no argument either way with the coaches who ranked the Mountaineers No. 7 in the USA Today/Coaches preseason poll.
"The biggest thing about being ranked in the top 10 or 12 is you're already up there to begin with and you almost have to play your way out," he said. "It doesn't really matter."
Rodriguez said success won't change his approach to practice.
"We'll approach it the same way, coach 'em the same way, practice the same way, and just hope we stay lucky and healthy and maybe win a few games," he said.
The key, he said, is keeping players focused on the next play, not some make-or-break game like the Mountaineers' visit to Louisville on Nov. 2.
"You get looking too far down the road, that's a recipe for disaster," Rodriguez said. "Just worry about the next play. And at the end of 12 games of worrying about the next play, let's see where we are."
Asked if Louisville will be his toughest game this season, Rodriguez smiled.
"Our toughest game will be Marshall Sept. 2," he said. "After that, it will be, who's next?"
The Mountaineers host Eastern Washington on Sept. 9.
• Former Gateway quarterback Mortty Ivy, a sophomore linebacker, should be able to resume practice this month, Rodriguez said. Ivy tore knee ligaments in spring practice but has come back faster than expected.
• Rodriguez said he's considering moving Blackhawk's Jeremy Bruce from slot receiver to tailback to provide depth. "Jeremy is a good player and we've got to find another guy who can play tailback in the next two weeks," Rodriguez said.
The Mountaineers opened fall practice Saturday ranked among the nation's top 10 in a host of preseason college football magazine, Internet and major polls.
2-Street & Smith's
5-The Sporting News
The Associated Press Top 25 preseason poll will be released Aug. 19.