Campus Corner

West Virginia attracts curiosity at Big 12 Media Days

Interviewers gathered around, and when one group moved on, another group moved in.

West Virginia is thrilled about being in the Big 12, the Mountaineers said. And fans from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Iowa are going to love Morgantown.

That was the message from head coach Dana Holgorsen at Big 12 Media Days, which wrapped up Tuesday at the Westin Galleria. Quarterback Geno Smith, center Joe Madsen and the other Mountaineers in attendance joined in as well.

But the most popular West Virginian who made the trek may have been Jonathan Kimble, the Mountaineers’ mascot who was in full costume, posing for photos, selling his school and conversing with reporters while clad in his coonskin cap and clutching his musket.

“About 50, maybe more,” Kimble said about the number of interviews he’s conducted in Dallas. “It’s been fun.”

They are the Big 12’s new curiosity, these Mountaineers, more so than the league’s other newcomer, TCU.

The Horned Frogs reside in Fort Worth, some 30 minutes away from where the two-day event was held. They didn’t make the Big 12’s cut from the Southwest Conference nearly two decades ago, but they’ve never been out of sight or out of mind. TCU built a strong program under coach Gary Patterson and often played — and beat — Big 12 schools.

West Virginia is a different story: far-flung, somewhat mysterious, and entirely capable, as its preseason second-place prognostication indicates.

“We expect to come in and compete right away,” said Smith, who was selected to the preseason all-conference team over the likes of Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Kansas State’s Collin Klein.

Offensively, West Virginia should fit right in. The Mountaineers averaged 37.6 points and 469.5 yards in sharing the Big East championship with Louisville last season. Both figures would have been around the middle of the Big 12 pack last year.

If the attack looks familiar to Big 12 followers, it should. Holgorsen shaped his philosophies at Oklahoma State, where he was offensive coordinator before moving to Morgantown two years ago, and Texas Tech. He has spent nine of the previous 12 seasons in the Big 12 and also coached at Houston.

All along the way, Holgorsen has worked with productive quarterbacks — players such as Kliff Kingsbury and Graham Harrell at Texas Tech, Case Keenum at Houston and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State.

Smith is the latest gunslinger, averaging 337 yards in his first year under Holgorsen .

“We’re explosive, that’s the best thing about our offense,” Smith said. “We feel we can score from anywhere on the field.”

West Virginia did just that the last time it played, beating Clemson in the Orange Bowl 70-33. With nine returning offensive starters, Holgorsen thinks there’s another gear.

“We should be better,” Holgorsen said. “Everything is better in the second year. You can just see Geno with a little bit more confidence right now. The offense makes more sense to him, so there should be improvement.”

The Mountaineers have another advantage: the schedule. West Virginia has five home league games this year. And the Nov. 17 visit from Oklahoma is generating buzz.

“Toughest ticket in years, I’m told,” said Kimble, the mascot, who’s from Franklin, W.Va. “I like us by 10 points.”

But the Mountaineers also have the league’s greatest travel burden. The closest Big 12 campus to West Virginia is Iowa State’s, some 730 air miles away.

On consecutive weekends in October, the Mountaineers travel to Texas and Texas Tech. But to Holgorsen, his team would be flying to road games no matter the conference. Big 12 membership just means an additional hour or so in the plane.

“From there it’s just about all routine,” Holgorsen said. “I don’t view it as a big deal.”

What will be a big deal is what West Virginia will face on the road. West Virginia ranked at or near the top of the Big East in stadium size, budget and scope of the program. Mountaineer Field can be one of the game’s most frenzied destinations in college football.

But the Mountaineers are joining a conference with national kingpins Oklahoma and Texas, and even those programs went a combined 1-5 against Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor last season.

“The one thing I’ve been telling the people of West Virginia the last couple of months is what we’re getting into is the same thing we have at home,” Holgorsen said. “And that didn’t necessarily exist in the conference we were in last year.”