Despite the disappointing three-game, season-ending losing streak it endured in 2017, West Virginia will likely enter the upcoming college football season with high expectations. A healthy Will Grier and loaded receiving corps point to a high-scoring offense, and though the defense struggled at times last season, the Mountaineers welcome back a solid core led by linebacker David Long Jr. and safeties Dravon Askew-Henry, Kenny Robinson and Dylan Tonkery.
However, opportunities exist for newcomers to make an immediate impact. If Dana Holgorsen and his coaching staff can fill the holes left by leading rusher Justin Crawford, wide receiver Ka’Raun White and defenders Kyzir White, Al-Rasheed Benton and Elijah Battle, it could be a very special season in Morgantown. And with that in mind, we take a look at five new West Virginia football players to watch in 2018.
Dante Stills, DE
Stills, a four-star defensive end, is the highest-rated player the Mountaineers signed in 2018, listed No. 124 overall in the 247Sports Composite, seventh among strong-side defensive end prospects, and the No. 1 player from the state of West Virginia. An Under Armour All-American, Stills was recruited by prestigious programs all over the country, and chose to stay home despite interest from Oklahoma, Penn State, Georgia, Florida and others. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, Stills has prototypical size for a pass-rushing defensive end, and also showed enough athleticism to play as a stand-up outside linebacker at times in high school.
West Virginia’s defense had just 24 sacks last season, which fell in the middle of the pack in the Big 12 and ranked No. 70 in the FBS. Additionally, the Mountaineers ranked 84th in passing downs sack rate (6.6 percent) last season, and the defensive line ranked 106th in DL havoc rate (3.3 percent). Though experienced players return at defensive end, WVU must improve its pass rush, and Stills could be the most talented pass rusher on the roster in 2018. Expect him to play early and often.
Joshua Norwood, CB
Cornerback was a huge area of emphasis for West Virginia during the 2018 recruiting cycle. Elijah Battle, Mike Daniels Jr. and Corey Winfield all graduated, leaving rising junior Hakeem Bauley as the only corner who contributed to the cause this past season. As a result, Holgorsen relied heavily on junior college replacement options, and landed a solid pair in Norwood and Keith Washington.
Norwood, a Georgia native who signed with the Mountaineers out of Northwest Mississippi Community College, originally signed with Ohio State during the 2015 recruiting cycle. Listed at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds and ranked among the top 50 cornerback prospects in the country out of high school, Norwood has average size for the position and plays with a physicality that strikes some talent evaluators as a better fit for safety. However, Norwood also has great speed. He ranked fourth among junior college cornerback prospects and No. 35 overall in 247Sports’ Composite rankings. He has enrolled and should compete for a starting position during spring practice and fall camp.
Keith Washington, CB
Like Norwood, Washington signed with West Virginia out of a Mississippi junior college, is already enrolled and should have an opportunity to compete for immediate playing time in 2018. Washington has a big frame (6-2) for a corner, but is listed at a slim 170 pounds. His size is his best asset, and it allows him to cover tall receivers well, especially in the red zone. Washington ranked No. 9 among JUCO cornerback prospects and No. 67 overall, per 247Sports. An Alabama native, Washington signed with Michigan out of high school. He redshirted in his first season with the Wolverines before transferring to Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College, where he recorded 20 tackles and two interceptions last year.
Leddie Brown, ATH
Some of the scouting services didn’t know what to think of Brown, a running back in high school. Ranked No. 544 overall in the 247Sports Composite, Brown was a three-star prospect in the eyes of some scouts, but earned four stars from others. Part of the issue was the fact Brown played his first three years in Delaware, and faced few challenges in the small pool that is high school football in that state. Brown transferred to a Philadelphia prep school for his senior year, and was a major part of helping the program turn its fortunes around from zero wins in 2016 to 11 last year. Listed as an athlete, the 6-foot, 210-pound Brown could make the biggest immediate impact at running back – and with 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford out of eligibility, he could have an opportunity to compete for carries early.
James Gmiter, DT
It can be difficult to project immediate impact players on both the offensive and defensive lines. Some high school signees come in with college-ready bodies, while others need time to improve their nutrition and develop in the weight room before they see the field. Gmiter, a three-star prospect, played on both sides of the ball in high school, which bodes well for his fitness. He also showed a mean streak, especially on offense, but is expected to play on the interior defensive line at West Virginia. With zero defensive linemen on the current roster weighing more than 300 pounds, the 6-foot-3, 310-pound Gmiter adds some needed heft to the unit. That fact alone should help him climb the depth chart quickly.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.