The last two seasons have been tough on West Virginia fans with up-and-down success from the both football and basketball teams. But an unexpected Sweet 16 run by the latter has fans prepared for what could be the Mountaineers' best seasons on the gridiron and court since joining the Big 12 conference.
Let's begin with the football team, which is expected to be a contender in the Big 12 conference after a season in which the Mountaineers' contention hopes were marred by injuries and untimely mistakes.
The defense will be the strongest part of this year's team, as it returns all but two starters with experienced playmakers expected to fill those holes. The secondary is expected to be one of the top units in FBS, led by Daryl Worley, Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, Dravon Askew-Henry, and top JUCO CB prospect Rasul Douglas. Linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski is the heart and soul of this Mountaineer defense and is one of the top linebackers in the nation. Look for the Mountaineer defense to make great strides and become one of the nation's top units this season.
The offense is where the Mountaineers will hope for instant chemistry after losing it's top two playmakers in wide receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford, but there are weapons ready to step in and contribute right away. Dakiel Shorts, Shelton Gibson, Jordan Thompson, KJ Myers, Lamar Parker and Ricky Rogers all appear to be the most likely instant impact candidates, with freshman Jovan Durante and Gary Jennings also possibilities. Skyler Howard will be given the reigns as the signal-caller of this offense after stepping in for Clint Trickett last season. The early reviews on the junior appear promising. Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell will lead the rushing attack that will be running behind a very underrated offensive line that will feature Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch.
Now let's move to the program that made an unexpected run to the Sweet 16 before ultimately losing to Final Four participant Kentucky. The Mountaineers will lose two starters in Juwan Staten and Gary Browne but feature one of the top recruiting classes Bob Huggins has had during his time at WVU.
Newcomer Esa Ahmad is the prize recruit that Huggins has been waiting on and was recently cleared by the NCAA to enroll this summer. Trevon Myers was the one of the top JUCO scorers in the nation last season, while James Bolden is an underrated guard who will replace Staten at the point. Lamont West is a late bloomer that the Mountaineers jumped on and will provide a presence in the paint that will allow starters Devin Williams and Jon Holton to rest. The wildcard here could be if the Mountaineers are able to land uncommitted guard Maverick Rowan, who would provide this team with another scorer that is a very good shooter, an area the Mountaineers struggled in last season.
Among the returnees who will be counted on to lead the group of newcomers known as "Press Virginia" is Devin Williams. An underrated star that will likely be one of the top players in the Big 12, if not an All-American, Williams figures to become the face of the Mountaineers this season. Forwards Jon Holton, Elijah Macon, Nathan Adrian, Brandon Watkins,and Marshall transfer Tyquane Goard all will need to step up to provide a presence in the paint. The experienced guards also will be called on to to replace the contributions of Staten and Browne. Daxter Miles, Jaysean Paige, Jevon Carter and Tarik Phillips are next in line after gaining valuable experience last season.
The pieces appear to be in place for the Mountaineer football and basketball teams to break through in not only the Big 12 but also on the national landscape. Each team will need some key players to step up to achieve a high level of success, but either way it's going to be an exciting year for Mountaineer athletics.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.