West Virginia Is Full of Unanswered Questions
By JIM BUTTA
MORGANTOWN — In 2016, West Virginia won 10 games for one of the best seasons in recent memory, climbing as high as No. 10 in the College Football Playoff poll at one point.
It marked only the ninth time the Mountaineers finished with double-digit wins. WVU finished with a top-20 national ranking and made an appearance in the Russell Athletic Bowl — a 31-14 loss to the ACC’s University of Miami — it’s 14th bowl in the past 15 years.
But, the question in every Mountaineer fan’s mind is ‘What have you done for us lately?’
Veteran coach Dana Holgorsen, who begins his seventh campaign at the helm of the program, and his staff and players will attempt to answer that question when they kick off the 2017 season in FedEx Field in Landover, Md., against longtime rival Virginia Tech at 7:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 3.
“They are pretty athletic,” Holgorsen said of his team. “The thing I like about where we are at is we have good leadership. We have a lot of experience. They are athletic, we have had pretty athletic guys in the past. It looks like the same defense. That’s what is exciting about where we are at. How are we going to replace eight starters on defense?
“Well, the same way we have for the last two years. With guys that have been in the program and with guys that know what to do. I said this on numerous occasions, I think our recruiting is continuoausly getting better with the type of bodies that we are bringing in, wow.
“Thankfully, we don’t usually have to play those bodies when they first get here. They have time to develop and time to learn. Then they play when they are ready to play. That is where we are at on defense. I think that is where we are at as a program. I am excited with how those guys look and how they are acting and how they are running around.”
The summer, however, did not go well for the Mountaineers as sophomore linebacker David Long suffered a leg injury which will force him to miss the entire preseason and as many as four games.
Long, the team’s sixth leading tackler in 2016, will be replaced by redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkery. The Bridgeport native had a great spring and summer, but is being pushed by junior college transfer Quondarius Qualls.
The remainder of the linebacking corp will have senior Al-Rasheed Benton back at Mike while senior Xavier Preston came out of the spring atop the depth chart at Sam. St. Clairsville’s Brendan Ferns looks to see plenty of action after missing last year with a knee injury.
“I’m concerned at linebacker,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “I’m concerned up front. (Brendan) Ferns has looked good and it appears like he is ready to help us, but right now we still have a lot of questions before we’ll be ready for our opener.”
Up front sophomores Adam Shuler II and Reese Donahue and redshirt junior Jaleel Fields came out of the spring atop the depth chart, but seniors Jon Lewis and Xavier Pegues are pushing hard for playing time.
“We’ve been excited about the guys,” assistant coach Bruce Tall said. “We think we have good numbers and we’ve got a good rotation. We’ve been trying to build depth, as we’ve been doing, so that’s something that we’ve always looked for.
“You have to play a minimum of five to six guys on the defensive line and we’d love to get that to seven or eight guys because numbers are key. Especially in the style of football we play now. It’s up-tempo so we have to play a lot of guys.”
The secondary, which lost All-American Rasul Douglas, received some needed help with the return of two-year starting safety Dravon Askew-Henry, who missed 2016 with a knee injury, as well as senior Kyzir White (Spur), Elijah Battle (corner) and Toyous Avery (Bandit).
However, the battle at the two corners is fierce and a number of names have come up over the summer.
“(Deamonte) Lindsay has been impressive so far,” explained assistant coach Matt Caponi. “(Jovanni) Stewart has been making plays as well. We have a lot of kids who are making plays. The ones who make them consistently will be the ones who will be playing on Saturdays.”
Offensively, the backfield looks solid with the return of senior running back Justin Crawford as well as his primary two backups — Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway — and incoming freshman Tevin Bush.
Crawford, a preseason All-Big 12 first team selection, accounted for 1,184 yards and four touchdowns a year ago while McKoy (472, 4 TDs) and Pettaway (260, 1 TD) have each displayed the ability to lead the team’s ground attack.
The NCAA’s decision to grant University of Florida transfer Will Grier a green light to be on the field for the opener renews hope that a somewhat subdued passing attack will again return to the days of the ‘Air Raid.’
“He (Grier) is as good as advertised,” said Holgorsen. “He’s mature. He can make all of the throws. And, he can run if he has too. We are looking forward to seeing what he can do this year.”
The loss of senior Daikiel Shorts Jr. and junior Shelton Gibson, who elected to forego his senior season for the NFL, have some worried about the Mountaineers’ ability to move the ball in the air. But, the return of junior David Sills V and redshirt senior Ka’Raun White, who missed the final two games of 2016 with a knee injury, should go a long way in easing those losses.
Up front the loss of All-American center Tyler Orlosky and fellow seniors Tony Matteo and Adam Pankey left a big hole for offensive line coach Joe Wickline. But, like elsewhere in the depth chart, replacements were not hard to find.
Redshirt sophomore Matt Jones came out of the spring atop the chart to replace Orlosky while the return of redshirt junior Yodny Cajuste, who missed all but one series with a knee injury last fall, have solidify the left tackle spot.
Union Local’s Colton McKivitz looks to be penciled in at right tackle with Byesville native Josh Sills making his way up the chart and primed to work his way into the team’s rotation.
“Colton (McKivitz) could play left or right tackle,” Wickline said. “We like him on the right side and we really haven’t done a lot of moving around at the tackles. But, that doesn’t mean he won’t find himself on the left if we need him there.
“Josh (Sills) has been getting better every day. If he can continue to improve, we could see him on the field this fall as well.”
Special teams look solid with the return of redshirt senior Mike Molina as the team’s placekicker, redshirt junior Billy Kinney at punter and redshirt senior Nick Meadows at long snapper.
“We feel comfortable with our special teams, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t going to have some changes,” assistant coach Mark Scott said. “(Redshirt freshman Jonn) Young could help us with kickoffs and we are still evaluating who are our best options on returns.”
All this leaves the coaching staff and fans anxious, but also excited as the Mountaineers get closer to its season opener.