How do you replace three players who accounted for 9,047 yards and 47 touchdowns last football season?
If you’re West Virginia, perhaps you work on improving a ragged defense that was 114th nationally in points allowed and 108th in yards allowed.
Either way, 2013 shapes up as a rebuilding year for the Mountaineers, who soared to 5-0 and fourth in the country after beating Texas and tumbled to 2-6 the rest of the way.
WVU will likely be picked to finish eighth or ninth in the Big 12 in its second season, which will provide plenty of motivation.
“Nobody thinks we are any good,” Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen said. “I encourage our guys not to read anything online, on the message boards or any other publications. No one knows what our team is going to be like. The only people that can dictate that are the coaches and players.”
And there will be a lot of new ones, players and coaches.
Gone are 11 starters, including three offensive record-setters: quarterback Geno Smith and scatback Tavon Austin, who will be NFL first-round draft picks, and wide receiver Stedman Bailey, who led the nation with 25 touchdown catches.
The coaching staff was shaken up, especially on the defensive side, and at least a half-dozen defenders have been moved around. The talent and depth appears better than a year ago.
Linebacker Isaiah Bruce had 94 tackles as a freshman, although Holgorsen has been tweaking him.
“He is not close to his ceiling,” the coach said. “He is not having his best spring. Guys need to come in here and not be comfortable about having a starting spot.”
Freshmen Al-Rasheed Benton, a four-star recruit, and Hodari Christian are interesting additions to the linebacker mix, where Shaq Petteway is switching from the outside to the inside. The secondary still looks shaky, but the front wall should be sounder.
On offense it’s a whole new ballgame, starting at quarterback. Junior Paul Millard, who has thrown all of 19 passes, is running neck-and-neck with redshirt freshman Ford Childress from Houston Kinkaid. They are both pocket passers.
Freshman Chavas Rawlins presents a dual threat perhaps more fitting with Holgorsen’s spread, but he is too raw.
Andrew Buie, who terrorized Texas for 207 yards rushing in an 851-yard season, should see more than 179 carries — his 2012 total — to help the QBs.
The tailback corps also will include the wonderfully named Dreamius Smith, a junior college transfer who excites Mountaineer fans with his potential, and a proven commodity in Dustin Garrison.
The receiver position was wiped out, but Holgorsen’s system is receiver-friendly, and there is new talent with Kevin White, one of seven junior college transfers
who enrolled early, 6-foot-4-inch Dante Campbell, Devonte Mathis and Daikiel Shorts.
His team is in such flux that Holgorsen wrote the depth charts on a couple pieces of paper in advance of Saturday’s spring game, but he’s made sure the new guys know Mountaineers tradition.
“Last week we taught the group about the history of ‘Country Roads.’ Half of them knew who John Denver was, the others didn’t,” Holgorsen said. “We attempted to teach them the lyrics. We played it, sat there and enjoyed it. It is one of the best traditions in college football.”
SPRING TOUR: WEST VIRGINIA
2012: 7-6 (4-5 in Big 12, tied for 5th); lost to Syracuse in Pinstripe Bowl
They’re gone: QB Geno Smith, WR Tavon Austin, WR Stedman Bailey, OL Joe Madsen
But they’re back: RB Andrew Buie, DB Karl Joseph, LB Isaiah Bruce
Returning leaders: Passing — Paul Millard (9-19-87, 2/1); Rushing — Andrew Buie (179-851-7); Receiving — Andrew Buie (28-318-0)
Spring cleaning: West Virginia’s two biggest issues? Moving on without NFL-bound stars Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and turning around a defense that cratered in 2012.
THE PAST FIVE YEARS
How West Virginia has fared since 2008:
2010;9-4/—;25/—;Champ Sports (L)
2008;9-4;—;8/23;Meineke Car Care (L)
*AP preseason/final ranking
OUR SPRING TOUR
This is the fifth installment of our annual 10-day spring sweep around the Big 12 by six reporters on the American-Statesman’s college team:
April 14: Texas Tech
April 15: Kansas State
April 16: Oklahoma
April 17: Baylor
April 18: West Virginia
April 19: Oklahoma State
April 20: Kansas
April 21: Texas
April 22: Iowa State
April 23: TCU
BIG 12’S SPRING GAMES
March 30: Texas
April 6: Baylor
April 13: Kansas, Oklahoma
April 20: Iowa State, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, West Virginia
April 27: Kansas State