How to replace WVU's Big 3?
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - If Shannon Dawson were to get the Christmas present he wants today it wouldn't come wrapped.
Instead, it would be in the form of some kind of assurance that come early Saturday evening - at roughly the time West Virginia wraps up its Pinstripe Bowl game with Syracuse and the 2012 season - he will have someone to replace the seemingly irreplaceable.
Dawson is West Virginia's offensive coordinator. That means he's the one fortunate enough to be working with Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
It also means that after those three play their final game on Saturday, Dawson will be front and center in trying to figure out what to do next.
Truth be told, though, Dawson doesn't seem too worried by what appears to be a massive rebuilding job. He's worked with head coach Dana Holgorsen in this offense on and off for a few years and at a few stops, and in every instance irreplaceable players were always replaced.
"It's been that way everywhere we've been. It's just the nature of our offense to get playmakers the ball,'' Dawson said, referring to the slew of passing records set by Smith, Austin and Bailey and the entire West Virginia offense. "Now what we've got to do is find people to replace those guys. And it's not been any different anywhere we've been. You have people you think are irreplaceable and then, all of a sudden, so and so steps out of nowhere and becomes a really good player.
"It'll happen. But we're going to enjoy this last game with these guys. They've meant a lot to this program and they've meant a lot to us. We appreciate those guys and we want to send them out the right way.''
Smith, Austin and Bailey are certainly at the forefront of the group of offensive players who will make their final appearance Saturday against Syracuse. Smith holds every passing mark in West Virginia's record book - significant - and most of the insignificant ones, too. Austin and Bailey are 1-2 in most of the receiving categories.
But the Mountaineers also lose tailback Shawn Alston, receiver J.D. Woods and the middle of the offensive line - center Joe Madsen and guards Jeff Braun and Josh Jenkins. In all, there are 11 seniors on offensive two-deep, plus Bailey, a junior who will leave early for the NFL draft.
It's a group that was recruited by Bill Stewart's staff and endured that coaching change and the philosophical shifts that went with them.
"This group's been through a lot,'' Dawson said. "They've been through scheme changes, coaching changes, stuff like that. It's really just the nature of college football today. You have to be able to adjust.
"Kids are resilient and the one thing I give these kids credit for is they've bought in. They've bought into our philosophy offensively and, minus a couple of them, we haven't had a lot of problems. For a majority of the guys that have done a bulk of the work, I'm very appreciative of those guys.''
None have been with Holgorsen, Dawson and the rest of the offensive coaches long, but they adapted well, obviously. The same players who were young parts of an offense that ranked 61st and 67th their first two seasons were crucial in an offense that was 15th last year and eighth this season.
"They've set a really good foundation for younger guys to grow on,'' Dawson said. "And that was really the point. Whenever you take over at a place you've got to win with the guys that are there. And then winning with the guys that are there, hopefully you can set a foundation for those young guys to come in and build off of it. And hopefully they've done that.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.