CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Joe Madsen has seen more changes than a light bulb at West Virginia.
Only two months after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Madsen signed a letter-of-intent to play football for the Mountaineers under newly christened coach Bill Stewart in February 2008.
Recruited as a tackle out of Chardon (Ohio) High School, Madsen moved up through the ranks at center and earned his first career start as a redshirt freshman in 2009.
Madsen saw the Mountaineers go from a run-based spread system under Rodriguez and Stewart to second-year coach Dana Holgorsen’s pass-happy offense that’s thrived under Geno Smith.
In the final home game for 21 West Virginia seniors Saturday, Madsen will make his school-record 50th career start when the Mountaineers (6-5, 3-5 Big 12) play Kansas (1-10, 0-8).
The emotions began to hit Madsen in practice this week when right guard Jeff Braun, another senior, looked at him and said, “Last Tuesday – ever.”
“I kind of just took a breath and thought, ‘Wow, almost done,”’ Madsen said. “It feels like yesterday that I was going out there and not knowing what I was doing, and just scared to death. But now it’s almost over and it’s been fun.”
For Madsen and many of the other seniors, their careers started with a 33-20 win over Championship Subdivision member Liberty.
“I do remember the first one, because it was definitely the scariest,” he said. “I walked out of the tunnel and there were 64,000 fans and you’re thinking ‘This is amazing.’ I don’t even remember who we played. But I remember walking out.”
Actually, the West Virginia player who’s been on the field the longest is Josh Jenkins, a backup guard in five games in 2008. He missed last season with an injured left knee.
It was Jenkins who, on Signing Day 2008, went to the podium at Parkersburg High School wearing a Michigan cap, then threw it to the floor in a swipe at Rodriguez and put on a WVU cap to announce his intentions.
Jenkins was on the field at times in 2008 when Pat White was weaving his way to an NCAA record for career rushing yards by a quarterback. And his blocking has helped Smith to rewrite the school’s record book for a passer.
“I’ve been here a long time,” Jenkins said. “This is my last opportunity. I’m going to make the best of it.”
Smith and wide receiver Tavon Austin are the most notable of the seniors, whose accomplishments include last year’s one-sided Orange Bowl win over Clemson.
Smith has grown from the player who lined up to take a snap under the wrong player in a game at LSU in 2010 to temporary Heisman Trophy frontrunner this year before the Mountaineers lost five straight games.
Smith joked that the biggest strides over his career came from putting on weight.
“I’m not skinny anymore,” he said. “At least not as skinny as I once was.”
He recalled visiting a football camp in Morgantown as a 10th grader with his Florida high school coach and former Mountaineer linebacker Damon Cogdell. He remembers when West Virginia would often play a Thursday or Friday night game on national television during its days in the Big East.
“Being here has helped me realize just how important (WVU) is to the community, to everyone around here, to the players, to the staff; from the cooks in the back to the people who help us with academics,” Smith said. “It’s just an important program to everyone, and everyone needs to come together for it to work.”
It’d be tough to find a group more dedicated to that than Madsen and the three other offensive linemen who’ll try to protect Smith in the final regular-season game.
“You just want to show the people one last time that you’re the best out there,” he said. “This whole team has just done great things, and it’s stuff we’ll remember and it’s stuff that I’ll be able to tell my kids someday. And it’s been awesome.”