The Mountaineers are hoping new head coach Neal Brown can replicate the success he had at Troy
The West Virginia Mountaineers entered the 2018 college football season with high expectations and appeared close to following through by climbing into the top 10 of the playoff rankings. Led by Heisman candidate quarterback Will Grier and one of the best receiving corps in the nation, as well as linebacker David Long Jr., lineman Ezekiel Rose and safety Dravon Askew-Henry on defense, West Virginia raced to 8-1 overall start, which included a 6-1 mark in Big 12 play.
The Mountaineers became a major player in the conference race and played their way into the national spotlight along the way, but suffered three straight losses (including a 34-18 loss to Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl in which Grier sat out) to finish the year. Grier, receivers David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr., Long, Rose and Askew-Henry are all among those moving on and head coach Dana Holgorsen also left Morgantown for Houston.
With so much turnover, outsiders might be bearish about the prospects of West Virginia football in 2019. However, here we offer three reasons for Mountaineers fans to be optimistic for next season.
1. New head coach Neal Brown
Holgorsen posted a 61-41 record (.598 winning percentage) in eight seasons as head coach. He led the Mountaineers to seven bowl games (going 2-5), as well as three Top 25 finishes, two 10-win seasons and the 2011 Big East title. It was a solid, though far from spectacular run.
By the numbers, Holgorsen’s teams beat eight opponents that were ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time (including zero from 2013-16), only four of which were ranked higher than the Mountaineers. Over that same span, West Virginia lost 17 times to an opponent that was either unranked or ranked lower in the polls. In other words, West Virginia rarely picked off more talented opponents, and as a result, came up short in its efforts to win a Big 12 championship.
Meanwhile, Brown was 35-16 (.686) across four seasons with the Troy Trojans. Brown led his teams to three bowl games (all wins), three 10-win seasons, and the 2017 Sun Belt Conference championship. He also picked up a few big victories along the way. Troy played only four ranked opponents while Brown paced the sidelines, but the Trojans beat No. 25 LSU 24-21 in Death Valley in 2017, a year after the program played then-No. 2 and eventual national champion Clemson to a 30-24 finish in the other Death Valley. Last season, Troy pulled off another upset on the road over a big-name opponent by beating Nebraska 24-19 in Lincoln.
Obviously, Brown’s head coaching career offers a smaller sample size than Holgorsen’s. Also, while playing in the Sun Belt, Brown’s Troy teams had fewer opportunities to beat top competition. For instance, West Virginia squared off against 31 ranked opponents during Holgorsen’s tenure — an average of 3.9 per year — while Troy played one in each of Brown’s four seasons. But when the Trojans faced off against more talented opponents under Brown, they usually held their own and sometimes came out on top. That track record, along with the fact Brown and his coaching staff will have a more talented roster to work with in Morgantown than at Troy, should give fans hope of knocking off big-name ranked opponents during the Brown era.
2. Talented rushing attack
As is the case with several Big 12 head coaches, Brown rose through the coaching ranks thanks in part to his Air Raid roots. And, of course, the Air Raid is known most for huge passing totals. From 2010-12, Brown was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Texas Tech and the Red Raiders threw for an average of 4,306 yards during his time in Lubbock. However, Brown has since proven his ability to adjust to his offensive personnel, and notably, no Brown-led offense has posted more than 3,505 passing yards in a season since he left Tech.
With Grier, Sills and Jennings out of eligibility and with potential new quarterback Jack Allison’s less-than-stellar performance in his first career start against Syracuse, we can expect Brown’s first West Virginia offense to lean heavily on the rushing attack. And that’s a good thing given the Mountaineers’ talented options in the running game.
Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and Leddie Brown all shared carries throughout the 2018 season, and the trio combined for 1,871 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns last year. All three (plus fourth-leading rusher Tevin Bush and No. 5 Alec Sinkfield) are expected to return in 2019, giving Brown and the Mountaineers a sturdy foundation of ball carriers for the Mountaineers to build upon offensively. Throw in three returning starters on the offensive line (four from the starting lineup in the Camping World Bowl), and a total of 84 career starts among returnees up front, and West Virginia is well positioned to post strong rushing numbers in 2019.
West Virginia averaged 160.9 rushing yards per game in 2018, and gained 4.54 yards per carry, which ranked fifth and third in the Big 12, respectively. Troy averaged 174.1 rushing yards per contest and 4.67 yards per attempt last season — a small but noticeable improvement as both figures would have ranked third in the Big 12.
3. Experience and production returning on defense
As of Monday's deadline for players to declare early for the NFL draft, although West Virginia was set to lose junior linebacker and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long Jr., the Mountaineers were expected to return 68.81 percent of their total tackles from this past season, as well as 62.23 percent of its tackles for a loss and 62.5 percent of sacks. Those numbers aren’t huge. For comparison’s sake, Ohio State currently leads FBS Power 5 conference teams in expected tackles returning (93.25 percent), with UCLA (96.36 percent) leading the group in returning tackles for a loss and Kansas State (100 percent) tops in sacks.
Nevertheless, the Mountaineers are in good shape when compared to the Big 12 as a whole. Conference teams currently average 63.67 percent in tackles returning, 60.05 percent in TFLs, and 58.75 percent in sacks, pending additional transfers, injuries and other personnel changes. And, of the three Big 12 teams that ranked ahead of West Virginia in both total defense and rushing defense in 2018 (Iowa State, TCU and Texas), only Iowa State (71.44 percent of tackles, 78.98 percent of TFLs, 73.44 percent of sacks), expects to return a higher percentage in any of the three primary categories.
Overall, the Mountaineers expect to return three of their top four tacklers (Kenny Robinson Jr., Josh Norwood and JoVanni Stewart), and six of the top nine. After Long, who led the Big 12 with 19.0 tackles for a loss, the Mountaineers expect to return its next four in the category in Stewart (10.5), linebacker Dylan Tonkery (6.0), defensive lineman Dante Stills (5.5) and defensive back Derek Pitts Jr. (5.0). Stewart (4.0) and Stills (3.0) also ranked second and third, respectively, in sacks.
(Screengrab courtesy of wvusports.com)