Is 2016 a make-or-break year for coach Dana Holgorsen? It certainly seems that way. Provided quarterback Skyler Howard picks up where he left off in the bowl game, the Mountaineers should have one of the Big 12's top offenses. However, there's concern on defense with a revamped back seven. A new-look secondary will be tested in the offensive-minded Big 12. West Virginia has the talent to push for eight wins, but if this team gets off to a slow start, will the coaching uncertainty impact the Mountaineers?
Follow Athlon Sports on Twitter:
Previewing West Virginia’s Offense
The fortunes of WVU — and perhaps embattled coach Dana Holgorsen — will rest on a strong offense in 2016. Quarterback Skyler Howard and seven other starters — including four of the five along the line — return on offense from 2015.
Howard tumbled in national statistics throughout much of last season but finished strong by throwing for 532 yards and five touchdowns against a porous Arizona State secondary in a Cactus Bowl victory.
“Skyler has a lot of ball under his belt,” Holgorsen says. “A lot. He should be a ton better this year.”
At running back, WVU lost the services of Wendell Smallwood but returns former high school All-American Rushel Shell and signed three highly regarded recruits. Kennedy McKoy shined in spring drills.
The Mountaineer receiving corps is strong. Returning is Daikiel Shorts, who led WVU with 45 receptions last year, and Shelton Gibson, who led the Mountaineers with 887 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Gary Jennings, Jovon Durante and Ka’Raun White are also threats.
WVU has bodies along the offensive line. Those bodies just need to improve. That’s why Holgorsen brought in assistant Joe Wickline to coach this unit. Former Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch, a guard, is the standout of this group.
Previewing West Virginia’s Defense
, which includes an in-depth look at all 10 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
If WVU’s season turns sour, it will be because of the defensive side. Twelve lettermen, including eight starters, are gone from last season’s team. Holgorsen, though, was upbeat in the spring. “The defense looks the same to me,” he said. “If you look at the first-string defense right now, it’s made up of juniors and seniors.”
Holgorsen says that the Mountaineer defensive line is “at a better place than it’s ever been” since he hit Morgantown. Two of the three starters return, and there is depth. Keep any eye on ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown. Nwachukwu was one of the conference’s sack leaders last season with 8.5. “We have a plan of attack for him,” says line coach Bruce Tall.
The linebacking corps, however, has a gaping hole after the loss of all three starters from last season’s 3-3-5 odd stack. The man most are looking at to lead the corps is Xavier Preston at the strong-side position, although he’s expected to miss the first game for disciplinary reasons.
WVU also lost serious talent at defensive back: Karl Joseph, Daryl Worley and K.J. Dillon. That puts the spotlight on free safety Dravon Askew-Henry, a junior who has been starting since his freshman year. Junior college transfer Kyzir White could start at Spur. The Mountaineers made a late addition to the secondary with the arrival of graduate transfer Maurice Fleming from Iowa.
Previewing West Virginia’s Specialists
There was uncertainty in the spring about the status of strong-legged field goal kicker Josh Lambert, but he will be available in the fall after a three-game suspension. Gone is punter Nick O’Toole, one of the nation’s best last season, and steady snapper John DePalma. Sophomore Billy Kinney is expected to punt, while junior Nick Meadows is expected to snap. The explosive Gibson is again expected to return kicks, and Jennings is set to return punts.
West Virginia has won almost entirely via offense before, and it might have to in 2016 in order to return to a bowl game, and, perhaps, save Holgorsen’s job. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has to perform magic with new linebackers and a suspect secondary. The good news for Holgorsen is that his Mountaineers diced up Arizona State’s secondary in the Cactus Bowl, and almost every offensive weapon returns. Howard will have to be more consistent, but he has plenty of weapons, and the running game with Shell, McKoy and four returning line starters should be strong.