West Virginia Coach Don Nehlen knew he had only three starters returning to his offense this year, and needed all three desperately as the Mountaineers tried to rebuild.
But two weeks into the season and two days before West Virginia's football game with Maryland, Nehlen finds himself with all three limping into College Park. Brian Jozwiak, the all-America contender at tackle, has a pulled muscle in his thigh, guard Chuck Jolliff has an arthritic toe and tight end Todd Fisher definitely is out, still recovering from knee surgery.
All of that -- plus the loss of defensive back Stacy Smith on Tuesday with surgery on his leg -- left Nehlen feeling less than peachy yesterday, even though West Virginia is 2-0.
"Our kids come to play, and I know they will Saturday," he said, "but every damn kid we had to have, we've lost 'em all for some period. The few kids you're counting on . . . "
Thursday afternoon is a favorite time for college coaches to bemoan injuries, but Nehlen's concerns are legitimate. West Virginia wasn't imposing offensively to begin with. The quarterback, John Talley, is talented but a raw sophomore. And all four receivers are freshmen.
Therefore, the Mountaineers have to depend on defense, where safety Travis Curtis (from Churchill High in Potomac), outside linebacker Fred Smalls and inside linebacker Matt Smith give West Virginia what has to be considered an above average defense.
Even so, some would contend that the Mountaineers would be 0-2 with two tougher opponents in the first two games. In the past, West Virginia has started with Oklahoma and Maryland; this year, Louisville and Duke. And even the Blue Devils went down to the final minute before losing, 20-18.
"Supposedly, Louisville and Duke are not good teams," Nehlen said. "That may be the case with Louisville. I know they're a pretty average football team.
"But I'm not sure that Duke isn't a pretty good team. As I told somebody earlier, if Duke -- with 52 lettermen and 12 seniors in the starting lineup -- isn't going to be a good team now, when are they ever going to be a good team? They played us right down to the belly."
Nehlen is primarily concerned with his two injured offensive linemen -- Jolliff and Jozwiak, a 290-pounder from Catonsville High. Both are listed as probable for the game, but when asked yesterday if Jozwiak would play, Nehlen said, "I don't know what to do with him. I'm damned if I do, damned if I don't."
Jozwiak was hurt last week in the third series of the game against Duke and couldn't play anymore. Already this season he's had injuries to an ankle, a hip and now his thigh. But Jozwiak is from Maryland and not too pleased that his state university didn't recruit him five years ago. Chances are, he'll play a lot.
Jolliff has had trouble with arthritis in toes on both feet. He, too, probably will play. But Nehlen doesn't want to guess at how effective either will be at pass blocking for Talley (22 completions in 40 attempts, 270 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions) or making way for tailback John Hollifield, who averaged 98 yards rushing in the first two games.
Nehlen, with so many offensive players injured and so many young ones in the lineup, said he has had to go a little slower than usual. "We'll be starting 18 underclassmen Saturday if Jolliff and Jozwiak can't start," he said.
Still, Nehlen's record this season is one game better than Maryland's, and his overall record at West Virginia is 43-19.
"There isn't a team in America that has all great players," Nehlen said. "But it's the job of the coach to make them think they're all great players on Saturday." This season, that philosophy may have taken on greater significance for West Virginia.