Tavon Austin should be the top target for quarterback Geno Smith in 2012.
The West Virginia Mountaineers check in at No. 12 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Geno Smith, QB
After watching film of Big 12 defenses this summer, Smith should be one of the players most excited about West Virginia’s switch in conference affiliation. He threw for 4,385 yards and 31 scores last season, including 407 yards and six touchdowns in the Orange Bowl rout over Clemson. Defense hasn’t exactly been a strong suit in the Big 12, which should allow Smith a chance to shatter last season’s numbers. He also has plenty of help in the receiving corps, as Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey will be two of the Big 12’s top wideouts in 2012.
Trap Game: at Texas Tech (Oct. 13)
West Virginia’s inaugural Big 12 schedule is manageable, but it has a huge test on Oct. 6 at Texas. The Mountaineers open conference play with a home date against Baylor, but the matchup against the Longhorns is almost a “welcome to the Big 12” type of game. Winning in Austin won’t be easy, but neither will be making another trip to Texas the following Saturday at Texas Tech. West Virginia should be favored in that game, but the Red Raiders won’t be an easy out at home.
Upset Alert: at Iowa State (Nov. 24)
The Mountaineers should be well aware of Iowa State’s upset potential, as the Cyclones ended Oklahoma State’s national title run on Friday night in November last season. The matchup in Ames occurs after a tough stretch of games for West Virginia, as the Mountaineers play Kansas State, TCU, at Oklahoma State and Oklahoma before closing the year against Iowa State and Kansas. Although West Virginia should be favored, history suggests this may not be as easy of a matchup as most expect.
Defensive MVP: Terence Garvin, S
The Mountaineers have to replace a handful of key contributors on defense, including All-Big East selections in defensive end Bruce Irvin, linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy. The defense is undergoing some scheme changes, as coordinator Jeff Casteel departed for Arizona, and Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson were hired to serve as co-coordinators. West Virginia will be switching from a 3-3-5 to a 3-4 scheme, which puts Garvin under the spotlight. The senior will play a hybrid safety/linebacker role in 2012, which should help the Mountaineers cover the Big 12’s spread offenses. Garvin recorded 72 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year and needs to be one of the leaders for West Virginia on defense in 2012.
Injury Watch: Dustin Garrison, RB
West Virginia never managed to find a consistent rushing attack last year, but freshman running back Dustin Garrison was a bright spot. He rushed for 742 yards and six scores, while catching 24 passes for 201 yards. However, a good chunk of Garrison’s yards came against Bowling Green (291) and he did not have another 100-yard effort the rest of the year. Garrison suffered a torn ACL in Orange Bowl practices and his status for the season opener is uncertain. If he is sidelined early in the year, senior Shawne Alston and sophomore Andrew Buie will have to pickup the slack on the ground.
Breakout Player: Will Clarke, DE
Clarke isn’t a secret to West Virginia fans, as he recorded 34 stops and two sacks in 13 games last season. With Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin finishing their eligibility, Clarke needs to be more involved with the pass rush and become a disruptor up front. At 6-foot-6 and 269 pounds, he certainly has the physical tools to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks.
Unsung Hero: Joe Madsen, C
The offensive line wasn’t a strength for West Virginia last season, but Madsen played well enough to earn second-team All-Big East honors. He has made 38 starts since coming to Morgantown and will be one of the Big 12’s top centers. Madsen isn’t a household name, but his steady play is a huge asset for an offense that works primarily out of the shotgun.
Biggest Game: Oklahoma (Nov. 17)
With nine new conference mates, it’s certainly going to be a learning curve for West Virginia in its first year of Big 12 play. The schedule has its obstacles, including an Oct. 6 date at Texas and a Nov. 10 matchup at Oklahoma State. However, the Nov. 17 showdown against Oklahoma could decide the Big 12 title. West Virginia can push for a finish among the top three in the conference, but if it can knock off Oklahoma in Morgantown, the Mountaineers have to be thinking Big 12 title and a BCS bowl.
Freshman to Watch: Jordan Thompson, WR
Is Thompson the next Tavon Austin? At 5-foot-7 and 159 pounds, Thompson certainly resembles Austin, but he is unproven. The true freshman caught 66 passes for 1,117 yards and 17 touchdowns as a senior in high school and was rated as a top 100 recruit by the Houston Chronicle. Thompson is expected to contend for playing time at one of the inside receiver spots in 2012 and even if he doesn’t win a starting spot, he will see playing time this season.
Comeback Player: Josh Jenkins, OG
Jenkins hasn’t quite lived up to his recruiting hype, but his return will help bring stability to an offensive line that struggled throughout the 2011 season. Jenkins missed all of last season with a knee injury, but returned for spring practice and participated in the spring game. The senior is expected to start at left guard and could contend for All-Big 12 honors in 2012.
Newcomer to Watch: Isaiah Bruce, LB
The linebacking corps will be a point of focus for new defensive co-coordinators Joe DeForest and Keith Patterson. The Mountaineers are switching to a 3-4 scheme and have to replace first-team All-Big East performer Najee Goode. There’s experience returning, led by Jewone Snow, Doug Rigg and Jared Barber, but this unit lacks a playmaker. Terence Garvin is expected to play a hybrid safety/linebacker role, but Bruce’s emergence is critical to the play of West Virginia’s linebacking corps. The redshirt freshman had a strong spring and will be expected to start this year.
Position Battle: Linebackers
West Virginia’s depth chart doesn’t have many glaring position battles, but the linebacking corps is largely in flux going into fall camp. The coaching staff was pleased with the progress of Josh Francis and redshirt freshman Isaiah Bruce. Sophomore Jared Barber collected 23 tackles last season and is expected to start in 2012. West Virginia has talent, but is also breaking in a new 3-4 scheme. Do the Mountaineers have the depth to make things work at linebacker? Finding the right pieces to fill out the linebacking corps is going to be one of the top priorities for DeForest and Patterson this fall.
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