Offense should not be a problem for West Virginia this season, not with a Heisman Trophy candidate returning at quarterback, along with his top two targets and a rock-solid offensive line. The outlook for the other side of the ball, however, is completely different. Head coach Dana Holgorsen and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson were already tasked with replacing seven starters before injuries and unexpected transfers came into play. If the Mountaineers can cobble a defense together, they have more than enough firepower to be a threat in the Big 12.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Offense for 2018
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There hasn't been this kind of excitement in Morgantown about an offense since 2011, when WVU had Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. The main reason is quarterback Will Grier, who is healthy again after recovering from a broken finger in last season's Texas game. He, All-America wideout David Sills and left tackle Yodny Cajuste all decided to spurn the NFL for a run at a Big 12 title.
"We had a pretty good offense," Grier says of last season's unit, "but we're going to fine-tune some things and be really good [this] year."
In 2017, Grier had one of West Virginia's all-time best passing seasons, hitting 250-of-388 attempts for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns. The former Florida transfer was named the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year.
Sills received postseason accolades after tying for the national lead with 18 TD receptions. Gary Jennings had 37 more catches than Sills for 1,096 yards. West Virginia boasts a serious deep threat in Marcus Simms and added Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons.
Up front, WVU has two potential NFL tackles in Cajuste and Colton McKivitz. In the backfield, the Mountaineers return Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and a rising star in Alec Sinkfield.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Defense for 2018
There are serious concerns in Morgantown about the defense. Coaches are cautiously optimistic about the defensive front, but nose tackle Lamonte McDougle, who surprised with his play as a true freshman, announced he was transferring. A potential starter at defensive end, Adam Shuler, did likewise.
Highly regarded freshman Dante Stills will help out at end, while his brother, Darius, a 6'1", 288-pound sophomore, takes over at nose. Also, WVU is hoping USC transfer and former five-star recruit Kenny Bigelow has something in the tank after multiple knee injuries. The staff continued their quest for help on defense into May, as Clemson graduate transfer Jabril Robinson committed to the Mountaineers for 2018.
The Mountaineers suffered two setbacks mid-spring when senior strong-side linebacker Quondarius Qualls and No. 2 middle linebacker Brendan Ferns - a former four-star recruit - went down with ACL injuries. WVU was already shorthanded in the spring with standout weak-side linebacker David Long sitting out after shoulder surgery. Junior college signee Charlie Benton might have to take over for Qualls.
In the secondary, WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is replacing both starting corners - Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle - and standout spur Kyzir White. Gibson moved three-year starter Dravon Askew-Henry to White's spur position and bumped senior Toyous Avery to Henry's starting bandit spot.
Previewing West Virginia Football's Specialists for 2018
Skyler Simcox, who previously kicked for Division III Emory & Henry and then Western Kentucky, will battle holdover Evan Staley for the placekicking duties. Returning punter Billy Kinney handled 70 kicks for an average of 40.9 yards. Perhaps West Virginia's best special teams weapon, though, is returner Simms. Last season, he was No. 13 nationally in kickoff returns at 26.3 per attempt and No. 36 in punt returns at 5.8 yards.
WVU fans were downright giddy for the 2018 team until departures and injuries hit the Mountaineer defense in the spring. Now, there's a wait-and-see approach while Gibson tries to patch the holes.
With Grier and perhaps the nation's best receiving corps, WVU will score. The only question is whether they'll have to score 50 per game to cover for the defense.