The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 67 West Virginia.
Previewing West Virginia’s Offense:
Last season’s WVU offense was the antithesis of a normal Dana Holgorsen unit. The recurring theme was “three-and-out,” as the Mountaineers ranked 113th in third-down conversions. Holgorsen, a noted offensive guru, saw his Mountaineers average 411.0 yards, but they were seemingly helpless to punch it in, averaging 26.3 points in the score-happy Big 12. WVU scored a TD on only 52.5 percent of its trips inside the 20 to rank 103rd nationally.
Mountaineer offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson says WVU is “more suited” for the Big 12 now. “We’re deeper,” he says. “I think we have 20-something guys who have played Big 12 games. We couldn’t say that in the last couple years. The one key factor is the quarterback has to perform well.”
Indeed, West Virginia has a stable of fine running backs, including Wendell Smallwood and Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, but finding a quarterback is vital. Last season, Holgorsen found a spark in quarterback Clint Trickett. But in a victory over Oklahoma State, the transfer from Florida State hurt his shoulder and struggled the rest of the season. He was held out of spring drills. Junior college transfer Skyler Howard hit Morgantown in the spring, and four-star dual-threat William Crest does so in the fall.
Look for WVU to emphasize a ground game behind guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski until the passing game can be developed.
Previewing West Virginia’s Defense:
Defense ruled WVU’s spring drills, which might be surprising to those who saw the Mountaineers the last couple of seasons. In 2013, West Virginia ranked 99th nationally in scoring defense. It was also 96th in pass efficiency defense and 106th in passing yards allowed.
But guess what has Holgorsen crowing? “The athleticism in the secondary between last year and this isn’t even close,” says the coach.
The reason is the emergence of cornerback Daryl Worley, now a sophomore, the experience of three-year starting safety Karl Joseph and a top-flight class of newcomers.
New defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will attempt to use that to his advantage in the 3-4 scheme. His pet pupil is athletic linebacker Brandon Golson, whom he will use all over the field, including at defensive end.
Meanwhile, the defensive line might be devoid of stars, but it does have a nice six-man rotation, including fine sophomore Christian Brown, who can play at both end and nose guard.
Previewing West Virginia’s Specialists:
When Mario Alford ran a kickoff return for a score in the spring game, some WVU fans were thrilled. Others wondered if it was the same old kickoff coverage team. Last season, the Mountaineers were 95th nationally in kickoff coverage and 112th in kickoff returns, averaging just 18.6 yards per attempt. On the bright side, punter Nick O’Toole is back after averaging 44.1 yards per kick. Placekicker Josh Lambert connected on 17-of-23 last year and exhibited an NFL-type leg in spring drills. Pairing Smallwood and Alford could help on kickoff returns. Alford could also handle punt returns.
It may be summer in Morgantown, but the heat has been on Holgorsen for a couple of seasons. In 2012, the Mountaineers went 2–6 after a 5–0 start that included a win at Texas. Last year, WVU finished 4–8 and out of the bowl picture. Athletic director Oliver Luck felt compelled to issue a statement after the latter “difficult and trying” season and backed the coach, if seemingly only for this season, adding he has “high expectations” for 2014. The problem for Holgorsen is that the Mountaineers might be better, but that might not translate into a sterling record. WVU opens with Alabama, visits Maryland and plays a full Big 12 schedule.