Knowns, Unknowns Cloud West Virginia Opener
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When it comes to No. 17 West Virginia’s season opener against the University of Tennessee on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., it will be a case of the ‘known vs. the unknown’.
Entering his eighth season at the helm of the Mountaineers, Coach Dana Holgorsen has made a reputation of having high-powered offensive attacks while defensive coordinator Tony Gibson continues to befuddle opposing offenses with his 3-3-5 stack alignment.
“They (Tennessee) have five years of film on us while we have a spring game on them,” Gibson said. “Defensively, we are going to have to make adjustments on the run and rely upon our athleticism to overcome anything we haven’t been able to prepare against.”
Tennessee is coming off a 4-8 season in 2017 — costing head coach Butch Jones his job — and returns 13 starters (six on offense, seven on defense).
First-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt comes to Knoxville with a defensive pedigree which includes being the former defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at the University of Alabama.
“You can’t under-estimate the value of having someone like Coach (Jeremy) Pruitt at the helm of your team,” Mountaineers offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. “With his experience there are few things that he hasn’t seen so execution becomes very, very important.”
The Vols’ offense will be led by All-SEC first-team selection Trey Smith at left guard, who missed spring due to an undisclosed medical condition. Also returning are wide receivers Brandon Johnson, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer, left tackle Drew Richmond and running back Ty Chandler.
Sophomore quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returns at quarterback, but he was only 1-5 as a starter a year ago, completing 61.8 percent of this attempts for 997 yards and four touchdowns.
Defensively, Tennessee brings back seniors Jonathan Kongbo and Kyle Phillips at the ends, linebackers Darrell Taylor, Quart’e Sapp and Daniel Bituli and defensive backs Nigel Warrior and Micah Abernathy from a unit which surrendered 29.1 points and 251.3 rushing yards per game.
Pruitt’s first objective when he arrived on campus was to shore up an offense which ranked 117th nationally in points scored (19.8 ppg).
“You can’t win in this league without a quarterback,” Pruitt explained in the spring.
Enter Stanford grad transfer Keller Chryst, who was 11-2 as a starter for the Cardinals, but completed only 55.3 percent of his passes.
If Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton can get Chryst on the same page as the team’s receivers and if the offensive front improves then the Vols will again possess an offense that will keep defensive coordinators awake at night.
Defensively, Pruitt brought his 3-4 alignment with him from Alabama, but it will be unknown until the season gets underway if he and defensive coordinator Kevin Sherrer will have the same talent to man those positions that he had with the Tide.
Like WVU, the cornerback position has also become a roller coaster ride for Sherrer. Junior Baylan Buchanan and sophomore Shawn Shamburger came out of the spring atop the depth chart, but either, or both, could be out of the lineup when the Vols take to the field at Bank of America Stadium to face the Mountaineers.
Special teams will also be a huge unknown for Pruitt and his staff even though sophomore Brent Cimaglia returns at place kicker following a season where he made good on eight of 13 field goals.
Questions at punter and in the return-game makes this area an unknown until kickoff.
“Just like last year against Virginia Tech, we expect to see a lot of new stuff and have told our kids all summer that they will have to be prepared to adjust on the fly,” Holgorsen said.
You can bet that UT’s Pruitt is saying the same thing to his new charges.