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Nehlen confident at camp's start

by Greg Talkington

SPORTS WRITER

Don Nehlen has seen many changes take place in his coaching tenure at West Virginia University.

Nehlen wouldn't mind an overhaul this fall, coming off a rare losing season (4-7) under his guidance.

In his 20 seasons at WVU, Nehlen has accomplished much. Two major bowl games, several minor bowl games and a pair of perfect regular seasons in 1988 and 1993.

But the 1999 campaign saw an end to those winning ways, leaving Nehlen and his staff with much work to do.

Despite several doom-and-gloom predictions from national publications, Nehlen believes the Mountaineers have what it takes to rebound quickly.

"We have as much talent, or maybe more talent than we've ever had here," Nehlen said. "The problem is, all of our opponents have gotten better too. Most of them have sunk a ton of money into their programs.

"Basically, what it comes down to is talent, luck and injuries. If all three of those go in your favor, then you're in. But if any of those go against you, you will have problems."

He alluded to a pair of teams from the early 1990s as an example.

"My 1992 team was a far better team than my 1993 team," Nehlen said. "But the '92 team had no luck whatsoever. Every time the ball bounced, it bounced against them and it had some injuries that really killed them.

"Yet the '93 team went 11-0 because every break seemed to go its way and it didn't have many injuries. Those kids won a few games early by the skin of their teeth and then said, 'Hey, we're pretty good' and it snowballed from there."

Nehlen doesn't begrudge those who have picked the Mountaineers to finish as low as sixth in the eight-team Big East Conference.

"We struggled last season and we lost some very good players," Nehlen said. "Everybody else in the league is getting better, so it only stands to reason that we'd be picked low.

"But hey, the horse race hasn't begun yet. That's why we play the game."

While most publications have chosen Miami (Fla.) to win the league, Nehlen believes defending champion Virginia Tech is still the team to beat, due to the return of All-American quarterback Michael Vick.

"Anytime you have the best offensive player in the country taking every snap, that's something you can't duplicate," Nehlen said. "Plus, they have a real good supporting cast.

"Miami has a lot of talent. Believe me, their fourth-string tailback could probably start for most other teams in our league."

Nehlen called both of those teams "Top 10" and said Syracuse and Boston College are probably Top 25.

Old rival Pittsburgh has also been ranked ahead of WVU, despite the 52-21 shellacking the Mountaineers administered to the Panthers at the end of last season.

With Top 25 hopefuls Notre Dame and East Carolina also on the schedule, one can see that Nehlen has his work cut out. Still, he's not conceding anything.

His confidence heading into this season, which began Sunday when freshmen reported to fall camp, is derived from what he calls "a twinkle in the eye" of his players during the spring and summer.

"This group has worked hard and the attitude has been terrific," Nehlen said. "I really like this group; they seem to have something special about them.

"Now, that doesn't mean we'll be great. We're pretty thin in some areas and injuries could hurt us. But I'm anxious to get started."

Freshmen will begin workouts this morning, with veterans returning on Wednesday.

West Virginia opens its season at home against Boston College on Sept. 2.

Sports writer Greg Talkington can be reached at 626-1444.

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