CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — For quarterback Geno Smith, the temptation might be to watch West Virginia’s pounding of Clemson in the Orange Bowl over and over. The prolific passer is doing quite the opposite in preparing for the Mountaineers’ debut season in the Big 12 Conference.
Smith knows he wasn’t perfect last season.
There were extended periods when he generated little offense, times when he held onto the ball too long, or fumbled it away. There were costly interceptions in losses to LSU and Syracuse.
“I made poor decisions in a lot of situations,” Smith said. “That’s really where I’ve improved the most, my decision making and being able to get us in and out of good plays, taking care of the ball a little bit more and just overall being a better quarterback.”
Entering his third season as the starter, the senior is up to 225 pounds after adding 10 pounds of muscle during the offseason and he has immersed himself in film study to be better prepared.
In that 70-33 win over Clemson, Smith completed 31 of 42 passes for 401 yards, tied the record for any bowl game with six touchdown passes and also ran for another score. That after a regular season in which he set multiple school records in throwing for 4,385 yards and 31 TDs as the Mountaineers finished 10-3.
Next up is the transition from the Big East to the Big 12, where West Virginia is expected to compete for a title right away.
“I think we’re excited, but I think we’re going about business as usual,” Smith said. “We’re going to make sure we focus in and don’t leave any stones unturned this season because we believe we have a shot at the national title.”
With the change in leagues comes concern about how West Virginia will handle the longer travel to away games and playing three games in the potential heat of Oklahoma and Texas. In the past, some road Big East trips were done by bus.
Not anymore. The Mountaineers’ shortest trip to a Big 12 school is 870 miles one way to play Iowa State.
“Travel is going to be different for us,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a long grind, but we’re prepared for it.”
Two coaches with plenty of Big 12 experience will help ease the transition.
Before taking over at West Virginia last year, coach Dana Holgorsen spent eight years as an assistant at Texas Tech and the 2010 season as Oklahoma State’s offensive coordinator, while new Mountaineers defensive coordinator Joe DeForest was with the Cowboys for the past 10 years.
While West Virginia will bring one of the conference’s most potent passing attacks, the defense is in transition.
With the hiring of DeForest, linebackers coach Keith Patterson and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter came a switch from the unique 3-3-5 stack defense to a 3-4 scheme that relies on movement and creating confusion for opposing offenses.
“We are trying to develop a mindset,” Patterson said. “It is like building a house. You have to build the foundation, and that is really all we did during the spring. They are starting to understand the scheme a bit more, and we are trying to give them things that are a little more complex.”
The defense lost sack specialist Bruce Irvin along with four of the top seven tacklers from the unit that ranked next-to-last in the Big East in points allowed and last in rushing yards allowed. Defensive end Tyler Anderson and safety Karl Joseph could get their first starts, while Terence Garvin, who is coming off knee surgery, moves from strong safety to a linebacker spot.
Most of the attention will be on Smith and his supporting cast. Back are his favorite targets, Tavon Austin (school-record 101 receptions) and Stedman Bailey (1,279 yards, 12 TDs, also records). Austin, a dangerous kick and punt returner, also led the nation last season with 2,574 all-purpose yards.
Shawn Alston and Dustin Garrison hope to boost a running game that ranked 92nd in the Bowl Subdivision at 123 yards per game. Garrison missed the Orange Bowl and is coming off knee surgery. He led the Mountaineers with 742 rushing yards, while Alston had a team-high 12 rushing TDs.
The offensive line returns four starters and welcomes back left guard Josh Jenkins, who sat out all of last season with a left knee injury. He has 24 career starts.
The opener is Sept. 1 at home against Marshall and Big 12 play begins Sept. 29 at home against Baylor. There’s a trip to Texas and a Nov. 10 visit to Oklahoma State for Holgorsen and the Mountaineers.
“Expectations are high, which we like,” Holgorsen said. “But we’re not going to pay attention to it. How you handle expectations is you just do your job. We talked to them about focusing hard on making themselves better on all three sides of the ball.”