Suspect secondary haunts W.Va.
AP Sports Writer
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) -For all the yards and touchdowns Steve Slaton and Pat White are expected to pile up for No. 3 West Virginia, improving a defense that was in disarray late last season will likely determine whether the Mountaineers can contend for a national title.
West Virginia allowed an average of 32 points and 314 yards passing in its final six games and ranked 109th in the country against the pass. Georgia Tech star Calvin Johnson exploited the Mountaineers' shaky secondary for 186 receiving yards and two touchdowns in the Gator Bowl, though White led a second-half comeback and West Virginia won 38-35 to finish 11-2.
Coach Rich Rodriguez would rather avoid the need for such heroics this season.
``There are some things we've got to get better at defensively and everybody on our defense knows that,'' Rodriguez said. ``Some of it was poor pass rush, some of it was poor coverage. Some of it was not making plays. Some of it was they were throwing a lot because we were ahead. We did not defend the pass well, but it was a combination of things.''
All the starters return in the secondary, though Rodriguez let it be known in the preseason that jobs were up for grabs.
West Virginia uses a 3-3-5 scheme as unique as its spread formation is on offense. The coaching staff felt opponents adjusted too easily to WVU's defensive schemes, so changes were made this season to disguise coverages and blitzes. There also is an effort to improve on-field communication.
``The defensive backs are getting on the defensive linemen and the linebackers are getting on us, so the defense is coming together really well,'' cornerback Vaughn Rivers said.
Not after unraveling in some spots.
Linebacker J.T. Thomas and cornerback Ellis Lankster are on indefinite suspension after being charged last week with transferring and receiving stolen property, which Morgantown police said was a laptop computer. Thomas, a redshirt freshman, had been expected to become a starter.
In June, free safety Quinton Andrews was charged with obstructing an officer and faces a bench trial on Aug. 30. He started 12 of 13 games as a redshirt freshman, leading WVU in tackles and interceptions.
Nose guard Pat Liebig quit the team in January to take over his family's car dealership business in Naples, Fla. Also gone are graduated linebackers Boo McLee and Jay Henry and defensive lineman Craig Wilson.
Among those who stuck around are safety Eric Wicks, an all-Big East selection who led the team with seven sacks; and four-year starter Keilen Dykes on the defensive line.
``Our kids understand how important it is to compete every day,'' defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. ``They understand that's what's going to make them better, the longer they push each other.''
There are far fewer worries on offense. Slaton, White and fullback Owen Schmitt return to a unit that ranked second in the nation with 303 rushing yards per game.
As sophomores, Slaton finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting and White was the Big East offensive player of the year.
Slaton set a school record with 1,744 rushing yards, but a leg injury just before the Gator Bowl kept him from surpassing the Big East mark of 1,752 yards set by Miami's Willis McGahee in 2002.
White ran for 1,074 yards and 17 TDs out of the spread-option attack. He completed 67 percent of his passes and could throw more with the return of three of four starting wide receivers.
With depth at running back, Rodriguez also plans some new wrinkles at times with Slaton at wide receiver and Schmitt at tight end. And in highly touted freshman running back Noel Devine, Rodriguez might just have another big-play threat at his disposal.
``We have way too many threats to just focus on one person. It would be bad news for (defenses) if they do,'' Slaton said.
Three starters return on the offensive line, but all-American center Dan Mozes and longtime offensive line coach Rick Trickett are gone.
For now, the high expectations and Heisman hype are downplayed.
``I just want to kind of ignore it, and that's basically what our approach has been. Who cares?'' Rodriguez said. ``It's exciting for the fans and it makes for good print. We've already sold out season tickets, so that doesn't matter. We're 0-0 right now. We haven't made a first down, haven't made a stop. No one's thrown for a touchdown or ran for one.''
``I've told the guys just try to make it through practice.''

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