|Wide receiver Tavon Austin :: Getty Images|
The 3-3-5 defense at West Virginia endured (and often thrived) through 10 years, three head coaches, 95 wins, 33 losses and 10 bowl games, but it will not survive the school's move to the Big 12.
With the departure after last season of defensive coordinator and 3-3-5 guru Jeff Casteel to reunite with former West Virginia head coach Rich Rodriguez at Arizona, current Mountaineers coach Dana Holgorsen knew the defense's days were numbered. The hiring of defensive coordinator Joe DeForest, fresh off 11 years with new Big 12 rival Oklahoma State, confirmed it. As Holgorsen (who coached at Texas Tech for eight seasons and at Oklahoma State for one) and DeForest know, West Virginia will face much more high-powered offenses in the Big 12 than it did in the Big East. The coaches decided that a 3-4 scheme would give the Mountaineers the best chance to compete.
"There are more snaps [per game in the Big 12], so you're going to play more people," said Holgorsen. "West Virginia hasn't really played freshmen, but we're going to need to. ... We're going to need more bodies. ... We've made adjustments to make [the defense] make sense to the kids quicker. DeForest was good at that at Oklahoma State. He didn't complicate it."
Indeed, DeForest has distilled his goals for the season to a crucial component: "[We want] three turnovers a game, 36 turnovers [total]." For a team that picked up 23 last year, there is a lot to work on.
So far, so good, as the defense won the spring game (receiving points from stops and turnovers). Junior tackle Will Clarke credits intensity during practice to the unit's success so far. "Once the guys got acclimated, almost three fourths of the way through spring ball, we started to jell," he said. "Practice just started to get more intense from a defensive standpoint. Offensive guys were congratulating us, and we were really praising each other." He is also excited about his new coach's history with the Big 12. "It's a big advantage," added Clarke. "He knows exactly how to prepare. We really trust him."
DeForest is more reserved about his chances against Big 12 offenses. "I know 'em," he said, laughing. "Doesn't mean I can stop 'em."
West Virginia's tried and true defense is a thing of the past. Will a new look be the key to stopping Big 12 offenses?
17.8 -- Yards per touch for wideout Stedman Bailey, the most for returning FBS players with at least five touches per game.
Tavon Austin, WR-PR, Sr. -- The national leader in all-purpose yards last year (he averaged 198.0, with 280 in the Orange Bowl) is appearing on some preseason Heisman lists. In year two under Dana Holgorsen, he'll only get better.
Darwin Cook, SS, Jr. -- Cook was second on the team with 85 tackles last season, but it was a less common play that endeared him to Mountaineers fans. His 99-yard fumble return touchdown in the Orange Bowl (and subsequent tackle of Obie, the Orange Bowl mascot) broke the game open.
Dustin Garrison, RB, So. -- Garrison, who won the starting job as a true freshman and led West Virginia with 742 rushing yards, joined the team during fall camp after finishing rehab for his torn ACL. His return adds an explosive offensive option to a team already packed with them.
Joe Madsen, C, Sr. -- Academically ineligible at the end of the 2010 season, Madsen rededicated himself in 2011 in the classroom and on the field. He'll lead an offensive line that has four players with at least a season of starting experience.
Shawne Alston, RB, Sr. -- The 5-foot-11, 225-pound Alston, who missed last spring and the first two games of 2011 after injuring his neck in a car accident, has been determined to prove that his all-out running style does not limit him to being a short-yardage and goal line back. After his two-touchdown effort in the Orange Bowl and his dominant spring, he appears to be changing minds in Morgantown.
Karl Joseph, FS, Fr. -- Listed as a safety but able to play corner as well, Joseph has a head start this fall, both because he was one of five freshmen to enroll in time for spring practice and because, unlike the upperclassmen, he does not need to unlearn the 3-3-5 defense.
West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith may be a celebrity in Morgantown, but he gets no special treatment when he returns home to Miami. When he walks into his mother's house, he's just one of her four children. "Doesn't matter what you do on the field," said his mom, Tracey Sellers. "When you are in Miss Tracey's home, please pick up your socks." She laughed, then explained. "One day you're gonna be somebody's husband, and I never want that young lady to carry the burden by herself."
Smith is the eldest of the four. "She had me at a very young age, so it was just me and her growing up," said the third-year starter, who has thrown for 7,457 yards and 56 touchdowns over his Mountaineers career. That includes a school-record 4,385 yards to go with 31 touchdowns (and just seven picks) in 2011. "She's my motivation. She keeps me humble. ... She never put pressure on me, but she wanted me to succeed. She preaches perfection and asks me to do my best."
That doesn't just apply to football. Said Sellers, "I'm the cheerleader for academics. I would do a cartwheel for an A."
Although Sellers encourages her son to focus on schoolwork and devote time to his favorite non-football pursuit, art (he received a scholarship to and almost attended the New World School of the Arts in Miami until he realized the commute would prevent him from playing sports in high school), football is front and center for Smith.
"It's my whole life," he said. In the first photo taken of him as a newborn in the hospital, his hands are held as if cradling a football. By the age of six, still an only child, he was running up and down the halls of the family's apartment complex, throwing the ball to himself. In elementary school he got into trouble for sneaking a football in his backpack for recess. At 10, his uncle signed him up for youth football, and he began competing against -- and often outplaying -- kids up to four years older than he was.
For Sellers, the depth of her son's love for the sport -- and the excitement he could generate while playing it -- came as a surprise. "I don't think I really understood his passion until I sat in the high school stands," she said of watching the Parade All-America at Miramar High. "In youth football I was just cutting orange slices and bringing Capri Sun. I never called him Geno, always Eugene. In the high school stands people would cheer, 'Geno!' They had shirts with his name on it."
Smith, of course, knew he was crazy about football. What he didn't realize until he got his first scholarship offer, from Boston College, was that he was really good. He would receive more than 20 offers but committed to play for the Mountaineers in November of his senior year.
Among his highlights at West Virginia has been the 70-33 rout of Clemson in the 2012 Orange Bowl, held at Sun Life Stadium, which he could see from his childhood home. (As a kid he use to climb atop the family minivan and watch games on the giant video screen.) Smith was named MVP and set Orange Bowl records with six touchdowns and 401 passing yards. Now a preseason Heisman Trophy candidate, he won't lay odds on himself. "I could care less about [winning the Heisman]," he said. "I want to win 13 games. The way I see it, if we win every game and we win a national championship, then maybe. There's plenty of guys out there working as hard as I am."
Even if he does win the trophy, he'll still be picking up his own socks at home. "It wouldn't matter if he won the Heisman three times," his mother said with a laugh. "He still has his responsibilities."
SI: You're familiar with the Big 12. What about joining the conference has you most excited?
DH: Exposure, more than anything. All these games we play in the Southwest against Southwest opponents -- with the TV coverage, we'll be seen in more households.
SI: Will joining the Big 12 affect your recruiting strategy?
DH: I don't think so. The challenging thing about West Virginia is that there's no in-state talent, so we have to go into the surrounding states and Florida. We did start branching out into Texas with the past two classes. [Now] we'll be recruiting the same areas but getting a better kid.
SI: Is it nice to have picked everyone on your current staff?
DH: It is. Staff cohesion is incredibly important. Last year we had the offense on one side and the defense on one side, and they didn't interact.
SI: What's the biggest change you've made with this team?
DH: Accountability. [The players] know there will be consequences if they're not doing what they're required to do.
SI: What was the most important thing your team learned last season?
DH: When you get down, being able to respond. We had a tough loss to LSU early in the year and came back and won the next game. We had a disappointing Friday night loss against Syracuse and came back to beat a really good Rutgers team. Tough loss to Louisville, we won the next game.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' Big 12 Preview.