So swift and
experienced are West Virginia's skill players that Rodriguez will preside over
the nation's most electric offense. The fastest Mountaineer might be junior
quarterback Patrick White, who rushed for 1,219 yards in addition to
throwing for 1,655 last season. Or it might be junior running back Steve
Slaton, a breakaway threat who ran for 1,744 yards and scored
wound up with Slaton only after Maryland withdrew its scholarship offer midway
through his senior year at Conwell-Egan High in Fairless Hills, Pa. "We
knew we really had something in Steve," recalls Rodriguez. "Watch three
or four plays on his tape, and you were saying, 'Wow. Nobody's catching this
guy.' He's a great fit for what we're doing--get him the ball in space and give
him a chance to outrun some people."
breakaway threats, Rodriguez has another in new recruit Noel Devine, a 5'
8", 170-pound dynamo from North Fort Myers (Fla.) High. True, signing
Devine was touch-and-go for a while; there was the question of whether he would
qualify academically, and in the fall of 2005 he became a father for the second
time. "But he's got the right attitude," says Rodriguez. "He wants
to prove himself."
Rodriguez can use
Devine to spell Slaton or put them on the field together with the freshman in
the slot. The Mountaineers are loaded, and they know it. Asked what he hopes to
accomplish this season, Slaton cuts to the chase: "Our goal around here is
to go undefeated and get a ring."
Funny, that's the
same goal around Piscataway, N.J., where Greg Schiano, coach of West Virginia's
Big East-rival Rutgers, says, "I think we're at the point where our best
can be the best." Having achieved in '06 their long-awaited breakthrough
season, the Scarlet Knights appear set up for a lengthy stay in the
Top 25. The most critical player in that quantum leap was Ray Rice, who
carried the ball 335 times for a conference-record 1,794 yards and
scored 20 touchdowns.
workload came at a cost, though. After spring drills Rice had surgery to clean
bone chips from his right ankle. The good news: He has been noticeably faster
and more explosive in preseason practice, during which, Schiano notes
approvingly, "he's taking the top off every run"--meaning the 5'
9", 205-pound junior takes the ball through the secondary after every
carry, for extra work and to set an example for younger teammates.
It is unlikely
that Rice will even approach 300 carries this season; sophomore Kordell
Young, his gifted (faster) backup, will handle more of the load. Schiano is
also ready to take the wraps off junior quarterback Mike Teel. If Teel's young
receivers drop, say, only half the passes that slipped through their hands last
season, Rutgers's offense will blast off. Opposing defenses will be forced to
take players out of the box to defend the pass.
"I can't wait
to see our passing game explode," says Rice. "It'll make everything
Like Boise State
and Rutgers, Michigan uses a zone-blocking system that allows the back to
choose the most promising hole he sees. For the Wolverines that back is senior
Mike Hart, who is similar to Rice in stature and production. Last season the 5'
9" 196-pounder carried the ball 318 times for 1,562 yards and
14 touchdowns. He loves the zone-blocking scheme, which Michigan installed
last season. "I think it goes right to my strengths," says Hart, who
identifies them as "vision and cutting." He is leaving out ball
security: In 750 carries as a collegian Hart has fumbled three times.
"Mike is a
squirrelly guy," says senior tackle Jake Long. "He can hide behind the
line and pop out wherever he wants."