Thanks to Michael Miller of The Smoking Musket for the Mountaineer preview.
West Virginia is returning nearly their entire offense from 2015, and has filled in the few spots left empty by graduation and the NFL Draft with very capable players.
Quarterback:Skyler Howard returns for his senior season in Morgantown with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, and from all reports has made a great deal of improvement since his record-setting performance at the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl. Howard has been named to multiple preseason award watchlists, including the Manning Award. Behind Howard, the Mountaineers will rely on either William Crest or redshirt-freshman Chris Chugunov. Crest saw action at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver in 2015, but has recommitted himself to the quarterback position this summer.
It’s hard to replace the 2015 Big 12 Conference rushing champion, but Dana Hologrsen and company believe they’ve done a pretty good job at it. Senior Rushel Shell will get the first-string slot on the depth chart but, because of Holgorsen’s new found love of having a good run game, there will be at least two or three other running backs that will see a good amount of time in the backfield. 2015 National Junior College All-American Justin Crawford joined the Mountaineers this summer and, from hearing running backs coach JaJuan Seider talk about him, he’s ready to burst onto the scene and make a name for himself. True freshman Kennedy McKoy enrolled in January and has impressed the coaching staff and, according to the most recent depth chart, is penciled in as the backup to Shell.
Moving on to the big men in the backfield, Elijah Wellman is sure be get some touches in the goal line situations. In 2015, Skyler Howard liked to look for Wellman on the play-action pass inside the 10-yard line. Wellman will be backed up by Michigan transfer Michael Ferns.
Wide Receivers:West Virginia receiving corps may be the strongest they’ve had since Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey were in town. Speaking of Bailey, in case you missed it, he has joined the Mountaineer staff as a student coach while he completes his degree and continues to rehab. Anyways, as I was saying, this year’s receiving corp is absolutely stacked. Shelton Gibson lead the Mountaineers in 2015, and is poised for an even bigger season in 2016. Working on the opposite side of the field from Gibson will be Ka’Raun White, who you may know as Chicago Bear receiver Kevin White’s brother. Ka’Raun had a pretty good showing in 2015 but is looking for a big jump in production, much like the one his brother had between his junior and senior seasons. Backing up Gibson and White will be Gary Jennings and true freshman Marcus Simms, both of whom have impressed in training camp this summer.
On the inside, the Mountaineers will lean on senior Daikiel Shorts and Jovon Durante. Shorts was the second leading receiver in 2015, and hopes to continue the production this year. Shorts will be joined by Durante, who came in last year as a true freshman and made a statement right way at the outside receiver position. Jovon was moved inside this summer and, by all reports, has blown the coaches away.
The offensive line may be the best unit on the entire team. I hear y’all are familiar with West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator/offensive line coach. We should sit down and talk about that sometime. Anyway, Skyler Howard will be operating behind a veteran offensive line that is anchored by who USA Today calls the nation’s best center in Tyler Orlosky.
Moving on to the defense, the Mountaineers lost a ton of production to the NFL Draft and graduation. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson believes there won’t be a big drop in production from last season to this season, but it’s hard for a fan to buy into that when you’re trying to replace almost all of your starters at linebacker and in the secondary.
Defensive Line:The only unit that wasn’t wiped out by the draft and graduation, there’s one name you need to learn on the defensive line, and that’s Noble Nwachukwu. Noble lead the Mountaineers in 2015 with 8.5 sacks, and is an absolute beast. The scary thing about Nwachukwu is that he racks up his stats very quietly, unlike former West Virginia defensive lineman Bruce Irvin. With Irvin, you knew he was coming at you and hard, but Noble seems to sneak into the backfield and then wrecks the ball carrier. Darrien Howard and Christian Brown finish out the rest of the line, and both have plenty of experience.
The weakest position on the team, in terms of depth. Al-Rasheed Benton is the only returning linebacker that saw a lot of playing time in 2015. Mountaineer fans had pinned a lot of hope on incoming four-star linebacker Brendan Ferns to come in and make a statement, but West Virginia was dealt a big blow last week when Ferns sustained a knee injury that will keep him out for the season. Former walk-on Justin Arndt is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker, after impressing the defensive coaching staff in the Spring and Summer training camp.
Secondary:The West Virginia defensive staff has seemed to do a pretty good job filling the holes in the secondary. Free safety Dravon Askew-Henry was expected to be the leader among the secondary, but sustained a knee injury during a drill in training camp. Jeremy Tyler will most likely slide into Dravon’s spot, and is more than capable of filling the role. Kevin White’s other brother Kyzir is pushing for the starting role in the SPUR position after KJ Dillon was drafted by the Houston Texans. Iowa Hawkeye transfer Maurice Fleming in impressing the staff at corner, but returning senior Rasul Douglas and Antonio Crawford should have both starting corner slots locked down.
Senior kicker Josh Lambert will be serving a three-game suspension to start the season, but should return and reclaim his spot. Lambert is a former Lou Groza Award finalist, and should be able to find himself in consideration for the award again this season. Wide receivers Shelton Gibson and Gary Jennings are penciled in as the punt and kick returners, which is a role the Mountaineers have struggled with over the last couple seasons.
Outlook:West Virginia and Texas are probably set for another battle in Austin if the Mountaineer defense can stay healthy. Skyler Howard has enough firepower around him to make it tough for the Longhorn defense. Last season, the Longhorns shut down the WVU passing game and forced them to rely on the run. Unfortunately for us, this season we won’t have Wendell Smallwood to count on, and have to hope Rushel Shell and company can step up and keep the production level. I guess we’ll find out on November 12th.