West Virginia put together its best season under head coach Dana Holgorsen in 2016, winning 10 games and finishing tied for second in the Big 12. If WVU is going to repeat that success, however, it will need several new faces to step up with just seven starters returning on both sides of the ball. With former Florida starting quarterback Will Grier eligible for all of 2017, the offense could surprise despite uncertainty up front and at wide receiver. The defense has even more question marks, but momentum is on the Mountaineers’ side and the Big 12 doesn’t look particularly deep this season, at least on paper.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Offense for 2017
WVU went into the summer confident — but not completely sure — it would have Florida transfer Will Grier in place at the start of the season. An appeal was in place with the NCAA to lift his suspension for using a banned supplement in Gainesville. And in mid-June, the Mountaineers received good news, as Grier was cleared for the season opener.
With Grier eligible for all of 2017, it will be a rocket boost for West Virginia, which won the services of the quarterback over offers from Ohio State and Oregon, among others. At UF, he completed 106-of-161 passes (65.8 percent) for 1,204 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions. The Gators were 6–0 before Grier was suspended in 2015. Sophomore Chris Chugunov will get the call if Grier has to sit.
WVU boasts a strong backfield, led by Justin Crawford, who had 1,184 rushing yards last season. At receiver, West Virginia will have to replace deep threat Shelton Gibson and solid Daikiel Shorts, but the Mountaineers have talent in Ka’Raun White, brother of Chicago Bear Kevin, as well as Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms.
The questions are along the offensive line. All-America center Tyler Orlosky and solid left guard Adam Pankey must be replaced. Left tackle Yodny Cajuste is coming off an ACL injury.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Defense for 2017
Athlon Sports’ Big 12 magazine delivers full team previews, schedules, scouting reports, conference predictions, national rankings, as well as complete 2017 college football coverage. Click here to buy your copy today or visit your local newsstand!
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has work to do. He has a nice corps of linebackers and two exceptional safeties, but he is replacing the entire front of his 3-3-5 defense and needs his cornerbacks to step up.
In the backfield, talented free safety Dravon Askew-Henry is back from an ACL injury. He’s what Gibson calls “kind of the quarterback of our defense.” Also back is former four-star junior college recruit Kyzir White, brother of Ka’Raun and Kevin. At corner, Syracuse graduate transfer Corey Winfield is expected to help.
At linebacker, the Mountaineers should be fine with 6'2", 238-pound Xavier Preston, sophomore David Long and team leader Al-Rasheed Benton. Along the line, though, all three starters from last season — Christian Brown, Darrien Howard and Noble Nwachukwu — are gone.
Senior Xavier Pegues could be a solid nose tackle, but the defensive end position projects two sophomores — Reese Donahue and Adam Shuler II — as starters.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Specialists for 2017
Holgorsen says WVU will do things differently on special teams this season. That’s understandable considering the kickoff return coverage was No. 103 nationally and the punt return team was No. 124. Yet don’t expect much turnover in regard to specialists. Placekicker Mike Molina converted 15-of-22 field goal attempts (68.2 percent), a success rate that ranked just No. 84 nationally. Nick Meadows will be the long snapper. At punter, Billy Kinney, a junior, averaged 41.7 yards, No. 48 nationally in 2016. He’s expected to handle the duties again. WVU will have to find a replacement for Gibson in the return game.
As Holgorsen, armed with a new contract that extends through 2021, said throughout the spring, West Virginia has talented players. Grier at quarterback, Ka’Raun White at receiver and Crawford at running back comprise a trinity that’s tough to beat. Offensive line coach Joe Wickline should be able to build a decent front with guard Kyle Bosch as the anchor.
On defense, though, questions swirl around the line and at corner. Expect the opposition to test the WVU front early and often in 2017. Also, uncertainty at corner might give blitz-happy Gibson pause.
In addition, there’s concern as to whether those in key positions coming off injuries — Cajuste, Ka’Raun White, Askew-Henry, Pegues and linebacker Brendan Ferns — will return to prior form.
Overall, though, WVU has plenty of confidence coming off a 10-win season and enough talent to challenge in a watered-down Big 12.