The West Virginia Mountaineers enter spring practice with higher expectations than the typical college football program would be after limping into the postseason on a three-game losing streak. Though the he won’t have 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford and 1,000-yard receiver Ka’Raun White in 2018, head coach Dana Holgorsen has arguably his most talented offense since coming to Morgantown. The unit, led by a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Will Grier and his favorite target, wide receiver David Sills V, could be one of the best in the Big 12, if not the nation. The schedule also sets up nicely for the Mountaineers to make a run at a Big 12 Championship Game appearance.
But questions remain on defense. West Virginia must replace five starters on that side of the football, including the top two tacklers from last year’s unit — linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton and safety Kyzir White — plus both starting cornerbacks. The Mountaineers also must replace multiple key contributors on the defensive line. Holgorsen and his coaching staff brought in reinforcements from the junior college ranks, as is customary in the program, and several returnees will change positions to find the right mix of talent. As the team takes aim at answering those questions this spring, we take a look at five important players to watch.
1. Will Grier, QB
West Virginia’s Big 12 title hopes rest largely on the shoulders — or the right hand, rather — of its quarterback. Grier (above, right) led the Mountaineers to a 7-3 record before he was sidelined with a broken right middle finger against Texas, which required season-ending surgery. WVU lost three in a row after the injury to 7-6. After rebuilding lost strength in his throwing arm over the winter, Grier is expected to be fully healthy this spring. Spring practice should offer a glimpse at whether or not Grier has fully recovered, and whether or not he will be able to build upon the 3,490 passing yards and 34 touchdowns he threw for in his first season on the field with the Mountaineers.
Depth could be an issue should something happen to Grier in 2018. The Mountaineers won’t be able to turn to Chris Chugunov, who started the last two games of the 2017 campaign. Chugunov opted to leave the program after graduation instead of playing out his eligibility at West Virginia. Miami transfer Jack Allison (eligible now after sitting out last season) and true freshman Trey Lowe III are expected to compete for the backup role.
2. Dylan Tonkery, LB
Al-Rasheed Benton was one of the best all-around defensive playmakers in the Big 12 last season, recording 110 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, six QB hurries, two interceptions and one forced fumble while holding down the pivotal middle linebacker spot. Backup Hodari Christian II also is gone, and the Mountaineers opted to shift Tonkery to the middle to try and fill the void.
Tonkery, who played both strong-side and weak-side linebacker last season, emerged as a key contributor as freshman last season. The former defensive back recorded a well-rounded stat line that included 43 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, three sacks and six run stuffs in 13 games. His production should increase with experience, and spring practice should help him grow comfortable in the new position. Tonkery also will have an opportunity to grow as a leader with veteran linebacker David Long sidelined this spring.
3. Brenon Thrift, DE
Defensive end Adam Shuler was expected to return for his junior season in 2018, and would likely have been a building block for the West Virginia defense. Instead, Shuler, who made 10 starts and appeared in 12 games last year, announced his intention to transfer (and pursue a track and field career) in February. Shuler’s loss is a blow to the Mountaineers’ depth up front, as is the transfer of Jalen Harvey, who was the only 300-pound defender to record a tackle for the squad last year. WVU also lost backups Xavier Pegues, Jaleel Fields and Jon Lewis to graduation, meaning more than half of the two-deep is now gone. Starting nose tackle Lamonte McDougle is out this spring with a shoulder injury.
The turnover along the line means Ezekiel Rose, Darius Stills and Reese Donahue will need to step up to solidify the unit, and it also provides an opportunity for new names to state their case for playing time. One name to watch is Thrift, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound senior who has taken a long journey to this point — a journey that hasn’t included much on-field action. Thrift signed with Temple out of high school and redshirted in 2014. He transferred to Lackawanna (Penn.) College in 2015 and recorded three sacks in five games, and then transferred to Penn State. After not seeing the field with the Nittany Lions in 2016, Thrift transferred to West Virginia and sat out last year. Here’s hoping Thrift capitalizes on his final year of eligibility.
4. Dravon Askew-Henry, S
Askew-Henry is one of the most experienced players in the Big 12, and he’s also got the talent to be an all-conference performer. Askew-Henry has appeared in 39 games for the Mountaineers over the last three years, which is more than any player still on the roster. Last season, he appeared in all 13 games, and recorded 57 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss, one interception and four pass breakups while primarily playing the Bandit position in the secondary. Askew-Henry has four career interceptions and 10 career pass breakups, both of which lead all current Mountaineers. Because of his versatility and playmaking ability, Askew-Henry has been asked to make a position switch to the Spur position that second team All-Big 12 honoree Kyzir White played so well. Askew-Henry will be the veteran leader in what is an otherwise unproven secondary.
5. Derrek Pitts, CB
Last year's starting cornerbacks, Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels, are out of eligibility, as is reserve Corey Winfield. In an effort to shore up the unit, Holgorsen signed junior college transfers Joshua Norwood and Keith Washington, who enrolled and will compete for playing time this spring. The coaching staff also moved Pitts to corner from safety. Pitts saw action in 10 games last season and recorded nine tackles. He will challenge the newcomers, as well as veterans Hakeem Bailey and Sean Mahone, for a spot atop the depth chart.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.