West Virginia will have a new starting quarterback, an unproven offensive line and untested receiving corps in 2015. Even then, the question seems to be around the defense. Dana Holgorsen’s offense seems to be all but automatic these days, so the defense — which ranked 60th or worse in the four major categories — is the biggest X-factor in West Virginia’s ceiling in the Big 12 race.
Previewing West Virginia’s Offense in 2015
Dana Holgorsen’s offense bounced back last season after a sub-par 2013. West Virginia finished in the top 10 nationally in passing yards and was No. 12 in total offense (499.8 ypg). Now, though, all-world receiver Kevin White, outside threat Mario Alford and quarterback Clint Trickett are all gone.
Perhaps no decision in Holgorsen’s career will be as important as tabbing the new quarterback. In the last three seasons, WVU is 18–20, so the heat is on. Holgorsen is hoping junior Skyler Howard can save the day. Howard, a former junior college transfer, replaced Trickett at the end of last season and completed 56-of-110 passes for 829 yards and eight touchdowns. “He’s still pretty raw,” Holgorsen says, “so he will continue to get better.”
Watch the Mountaineers run game, however. If starting tailback Rushel Shell can stay healthy — which he didn’t last season — WVU will feature a player running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider compares to Marshawn Lynch. Shell, a former five-star recruit who began his career at Pitt, rushed for 788 yards in 2014 despite being limited at times by a severely sprained ankle.
WVU, however, will have to rotate bodies on the offensive line, and the receiving corps — which lost some elite talent — is largely unproven.
Previewing West Virginia’s Defense in 2015
Second-year WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson isn’t shy about the defense he’s ready to put on the field. “I’m not going to hide behind it,” he says. “If we’re not great on defense, that’s directly on me. I told our defensive kids that. If we’re not really good on defense — the best in this league — I’m going to be disappointed.”
There are holes. The Mountaineers were No. 95 nationally in sacks (20) and No. 63 against the run last year, and the line doesn’t seem appreciably better. Nose tackle Kyle Rose also got into legal trouble in the spring.
The linebackers and secondary seem to be solid. The best of the linebackers is Nick Kwiatkoski, a standout senior who was moved from the middle to the strong side to accommodate Jared Barber, back from a knee injury. Kwiatkoski led the defense last season with 103 tackles. Gibson has all three starters back at safety in seniors Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon and sophomore sensation Dravon Henry. Cornerback Daryl Worley missed spring drills after shoulder surgery but has shown flashes of brilliance.
Previewing West Virginia’s Specialists in 2015
Returning placekicker Josh Lambert was a Lou Groza Award finalist. But the Mountaineers’ kickoff return defense was ranked No. 92 nationally last season. Strong-legged punter Nick O’Toole (aka “Boomstache”) is averaging 43.1 yards per kick over his two seasons in Morgantown. Yet West Virginia was a woeful No. 124 nationally in punt returns, averaging a paltry 3.0 yards — when the Mountaineers caught the ball. There were countless muffs. It was so bad that at times Holgorsen went without a punt returner, choosing to simply let the opposing kicks bounce. He’s hoping Jordan Thompson, Vernon Davis, Jacky Marcellus or Lamar Parker — all 5’10” or smaller — can handle the duty this season.
West Virginia, which has been either 4–5 or 5–4 in two of its three seasons in the Big 12, should once again be in the middle of the pack in the league standings.
With the exception of what seems to be a quirky 2013 campaign, Holgorsen continues to crank out fine offenses. Pair that with what should be a solid defense — especially if you believe Gibson, the unit’s coordinator — and the Mountaineers look like a solid a bowl team that isn’t quite good enough to contend for a conference title.