2005 RECORD: 11-1 (7-0 in Big East) RETURNING STARTERS: 14
DT Keilen Dykes (Jr.)
Led team in sacks (five) and tackles for loss (eight)
S Eric Wicks (Sr.)
Lone returning starter in the secondary had 61 tackles
LB Kevin McLee (Sr.)
All-conference pick was second on team in tackles (78)
Big Man on Campus
When offensive line coach Rick Trickett was recruiting quarterback Pat White three years ago, Trickett told his players, "If we get him here, he's going to win the national championship for us." The 6'2", 190-pound sophomore is an electrifying runner (7.3 yards per carry last season) whose passing should benefit from more experience and a better receiving corps than he had last year. White has already shown improvement; in the Gold-Blue Game last spring he completed 23 of 30 passes for 215 yards.
Behind super soph Steve Slaton, the Mountaineers are cranked up for a run at the national title
one day during the off-season, not long after the Mountaineers had beaten the big, bad Bulldogs of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, 14 West Virginia players lined up inside the Caperton Indoor Facility to settle the question, Who's the fastest player on the team?Sixty yards and six seconds later they had their answer: running back Steve Slaton. "Not a lot of people," coach Rich Rodriguez says, "can run with that guy."
Despite playing sparingly in the first five games last year as he learned the offense, the 5'10" freshman ran for 1,128 yards and 17 touchdowns. He scored six touchdowns in a triple-overtime win over Louisville and gashed Georgia for a Sugar Bowl-record 204 rushing yards, including touchdown runs of 52, 18 and 52 yards, as the surprising Mountaineers finished off an 11-1 season and got their already-crazed fans thinking national championship in 2006.
Asked what he enjoys most about being a running back, Slaton says, "Embarrassing somebody. When people try to tackle you and they can't, I like that."
Slaton runs the 40 in 4.37, but he is more than a one-dimensional speedball. "He's a fast guy with surprising power," Rodriguez says. In fact, in the spring Slaton won the Iron Mountaineer Award as the top performer in the winter workout program, and he has added 10 pounds since last season (he's still a svelte 195) to better absorb hits. "The exciting part is that he's still learning the ins and outs and some finer points of the offense," Rodriguez adds.
Slaton is not the only one. Because West Virginia has proved to be so effective at running the ball out of the spread (last year the Mountaineers ranked fourth in the country in rushing offense with 272.4 yards per game), more than 400 high school coaches and 30 Division I staffs descended upon Morgantown in the off-season trying to learn a thing or two about the attack.
Any fact-finding mission in Morgantown starts with Slaton and quarterback Pat White, a fellow sophomore who finished second in that 60-yard dash. Their speed makes the running game difficult to defend, and how they perform could determine whether the Mountaineers will play for the national title or fail to meet expectations, as they did two years ago when at least one high-profile analyst picked them to play for the championship. (West Virginia went 8-4.) "This year is totally different," senior center Dan Mozes says. "We have superstars in Steve and Pat, but those superstars have played for only one year. They're not worried about going to the next level yet. They have their heads in the right place." -- G.M.