AP Sports Writer
Skyler Howard sees his promotion to starting quarterback at West Virginia as more than an opportunity to take over the offense. He wants to look like he knows what he’s doing, and it starts with staying focused.
Howard follows the likes of record-setting quarterbacks Clint Trickett, Geno Smith and Pat White over the past decade in Morgantown. While the bar may not be set too high for West Virginia, which is predicted to finish toward the bottom of the Big 12 standings, Howard is ready to let loose after starting two games at the end of last season when Trickett got hurt.
“I think moving to the next level kind of made me a little bit antsy,” Howard said. “I’m getting under control. That is one thing I am focusing on right now. I want to stay calm in the pocket and focus on my reads. It’s getting better every day.”
Howard threw for 285 yards and three touchdowns in his first career start in the regular-season finale at Iowa State, then struggled in a Liberty Bowl loss to Texas A&M in which he often overthrew receivers but still managed 346 passing yards and three scores.
The 6-foot junior will have a veteran offensive line but must find some new targets with the graduation of wide receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford.
Howard is the most mobile quarterback under fifth-year coach Dana Holgorsen, who plans to take advantage and let Howard run the ball at times. But he also wants Howard to avoid turnovers first.
The Big 12 schedule won’t be kind to the Mountaineers, who play favorites Baylor and TCU in back-to-back road games in October. The Mountaineers also travel to play Oklahoma and Kansas State.
More than 50 West Virginia players have seen action in a league game. Holgorsen said his defense, with 10 returning starters, could be the best he’s seen in his 16 years at the Bowl Subdivision level.
“It’s been a long road to get to this point defensively and we obviously feel good about it,” Holgorsen said.
Holgorsen is entering the fourth year of a six-year contract, which was extended after he went 10-3 in his first season in 2011. But he is 18-20 since and will be under the watchful eye of new athletic director Shane Lyons, a former deputy AD at Alabama.
The Mountaineers went 7-6 last season, losing to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl. West Virginia opens the season Sept. 5 at home against Georgia Southern.
Some things to watch from West Virginia in 2015:
DEFENSIVE STRENGTH: West Virginia’s defense allowed at least 400 yards eight times a year ago. Seven of the expected starters are seniors, led by top tacklers Nick Kwiatkoski at linebacker and Karl Joseph at safety. Dravon Askew-Henry started all 13 games at safety as a freshman, was the team’s sixth-leading tackler and had two interceptions against Oklahoma State.
PASS CATCHERS NEEDED: White and Alford combined for nearly 2,400 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns in 2014. Their departures leave West Virginia with one wide receiver, Jordan Thompson, with more than 25 receptions a year ago. Returning running back Wendell Smallwood had 31.
PUNT RETURN PROBLEMS: Holgorsen has been looking for someone who not only can field punts but gets some sizable yardage on returns, too. West Virginia was next-to-last in the Bowl Subdivision with an average of 3 yards per punt return. Thompson had fumble problems and trouble deciding when to catch punts. The problem got so bad that at times West Virginia lined up with all 11 players rushing the punter and no one back to field the ball. K.J. Dillon, Vernon Davis and Thompson are among those under consideration for the return job this season.
TURNOVERS: The Mountaineers know they need to do a better job at forcing turnovers in order to improve their chances of winning. A year ago they forced just 14 turnovers, including two fumble recoveries, while coughing the ball up 29 times to opponents, which was sixth worst among Bowl Subdivision teams.
DEPENDABLE KICKER: Third-team All-American Josh Lambert set an NCAA record with 16 field goals of 40 yards or more last season. Overall he went 30 of 39. Five of those made were 50 yards or longer.