In October of 2012, it appeared West Virginia was primed to take the Big 12 by storm. Undefeated and ranked fifth nationally, the Mountaineers started life in the Big 12 with a 70-63 win over Baylor and a 48-45 defeat of Texas. Since then, West Virginia is 6-14 overall and 4-12 in the Big 12. The Big 12 has taken West Virginia by storm.
The Mountaineers' struggles can lay at the feet of a number of factors. Injuries. A loss of experience leading to inexperience at key positions. A roster that wasn't built to compete in the Big 12. All of the same stuff TCU has dealt with as well.
In addition to a loss of talent (Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey), Holgorsen suffered equally important - if not moreso - losses on his coaching staff, particularly on offense. Jake Spavital left to become the quarterbacks coach, and now the offensive coordinator, at Texas A&M. Bill Bedenbaugh is now the offensive line coach at Oklahoma. Robert Gillespie is now coaching running backs at Tennessee.
"Last year, on offense, not only were we replacing a lot of stars, a lot of starters, a lot of firepower, we had to replace a whole staff, too. We had some coaches move on to some pretty good jobs. We've got all the offensive guys back, got all the offensive coaches back. Tony Gibson took over (on defense) so we wouldn't have to change many things. We brought in some guys, held on to some guys that understand what the defensive scheme is all about. We've got the same coach coaching the special teams that we've had for the past couple years. The continuity on the staff right now, I think, is good."
Holgorsen's offensive staff returns completely intact from 2013, while Tony Gibson was promoted from safeties coach to defensive coordinator following Keith Patterson's departure for Arizona State, longtime Penn State defensive coordinator Tom Bradley was hired as assistant head coach and defensive line coach, and Damon Cogdell was plucked from the Florida high school ranks to coach the linebackers.
With three recruiting classes now signed since West Virginia announced its intention to join the Big 12, I asked Holgorsen how close he thinks the Mountaineers are to having a Big 12-ready roster: "Based on the fact that we have an entire roster coming back, I think we're in a position to say we're doing that. We have 55 guys in the locker room that have played Big 12 football games. Our job is to try to improve recruiting every year, improve the roster every year. I think we've done that over the last three years."
While West Virginia's location, basically on a land-locked island detatched from the rest of the conference, Holgorsen uses West Virginia's status as the East Coast's Big 12 team to his advantage on the recruiting trail. He says it's working.
"Our TV partners have done a great job of broadcasting our games, getting the word out that the Big 12 is exciting. Kids are taking notice. We're attacking a group of kids that have an opportunity to play in something like that, whereas in the past in our recruiting efforts we couldn't have sold them," Holgorsen said. "I've hired some good recruiters, but I think the Big 12 brand has helped, no question."
"We're recruiting at the highest level we ever have."
Now is the time to prove it.