Despite a 31-8 record and multiple victories over blue-blood programs at Troy, new West Virginia football head coach Neal Brown was passed over for several Power 5 jobs. But the wait was worth it as Brown jumped into the Big 12 with the Mountaineers following the departure of Dana Holgorsen.
Now, Brown and his new coaching staff have 15 spring practices to implement a new philosophy, including the obvious changes that come with new offensive and defensive systems, down to the nuts and bolts, such as changing the way the team practices on a daily basis. And of course, spring offers Brown an opportunity to evaluate the players Holgorsen left behind, see who fits where, and build a plan for the 2019 college football season.
As West Virginia prepares to open the Neal Brown era to the public with the Gold-Blue Spring Game on April 13, we take a look at five storylines to watch.
5 Storylines to Watch During West Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. Schematic changes?
Any time a team changes coaching staffs, much of the early talk is how the new regime differs philosophically, and how those differences will play out in the new offensive and defensive schemes. Naturally, the biggest storyline of the spring for West Virginia is the coaching transition, but there are a striking number of similarities between the new staff and its schemes and the old ones.
Similar to Holgorsen, Brown cut his teeth as an offensive coach in the Air Raid, though also like Holgorsen, it’s important to note Brown has proven himself capable of adapting to the talent on the roster instead of insisting his team play a certain style regardless of the personnel. The basic offensive schemes we should expect to see under Brown and co-offensive coordinators Matt Moore (who followed Brown from Troy) and Chad Scott (who spent the last three years coaching tight ends under Larry Fedora at North Carolina) are also quite similar to the base offense the Mountaineers used under Holgorsen. Like WVU, Troy operated primarily out of a one-back set, with three wide receivers and one tight end/H-Back. North Carolina also operated out of the same base 11 personnel, which has become quite common across the country.
There will be more changes to the defense, though nothing drastic. New coordinator Vic Koenning, who also followed Brown from Troy, often implemented four down linemen and three linebackers. That marks a change from the 3-3-5 base preferred by former Mountaineers defensive play-caller Tony Gibson. Koenning uses a "Bandit" rush end — a role Hunter Reese excelled in with the Trojans in two straight All-Sun Belt seasons — as well as a "Spear" linebacker. The two new positions should allow the unit to show multiple looks along the line of scrimmage to keep opponents off balance while also taking advantage of the speed and quickness on the roster.
Every coach is different, and terminology is sure to change. Nevertheless, the similar backgrounds of the head coaches, and the play-calling identities of the coordinators, should provide a relatively smooth transition from Holgorsen's staff to Brown's.
2. Quarterback competition
In addition to a coaching change, West Virginia is faced with turnover at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Will Grier was terrific for the Mountaineers over the course of his two seasons as a starter. The Florida transfer threw for 7,354 yards and 71 touchdowns — ranking third and second, respectively, all-time among West Virginia quarterbacks — with just 20 interceptions across that span. He completed more than 65.7 percent of his passes and set a school record with an average of 9.4 yards per pass attempt.
Jack Allison played in seven games for the Mountaineers last season and started the Camping World Bowl after Grier opted to sit out in preparation for the NFL draft. Though Allison was shaky in limited duty (he completed just 51.1 percent of his passes for the year and went 17-for-35 passing for 277 yards and an interception in the loss to Syracuse), he was once a highly recruited prospect, and the Miami transfer is arguably more naturally talented than any QB Brown has worked with as a head coach.
In short, Allison has the potential to start and succeed at West Virginia. However, Allison should be considered an underdog in 2019. Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall left the Sooners after Jalen Hurts announced his plans to transfer from Alabama. After backing up back-to-back Heisman winners in Norman, Kendall chose to hook up with Brown and compete with Kendall instead of Hurts.
After losing out to Kyler Murray in what was reportedly a tight QB competition last year, Kendall played in six games as Murray’s backup. He completed 12 of 17 pass attempts (70.6 percent) for 122 yards and a TD without an interception. Kendall posted similar numbers in 2016 (72.6 percent completion rate, 143 yards and two touchdowns with zero interceptions) while serving as the No. 2 to Baker Mayfield.
3. Other holes to fill on offense
Regardless of which new signal-caller wins the starting job, he'll be working with new players at several important positions: center, left tackle, receiver, and tight end. All-Big 12 tackle Yodny Cajuste is out of eligibility and will likely be an early-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft. His loss was expected, and either Colton McKivitz, the returning starter at right tackle, or right guard Josh Sills, would be a good bet to take over. However, Matt Jones started 25 games at center for the Mountaineers and was expected to anchor the offensive line as a senior in 2019. Instead, he chose to transfer to FCS Youngstown State to play his final season of eligibility in his hometown. Jones' transfer means Jacob Buccigrossi has the inside track to start at center, but Buccigrossi is expected to miss all of spring practice following offseason shoulder surgery. That leaves opportunities for others to compete for playing time, and Braison Mays could have the first crack snapping for the first-team offense this spring.
Kendall and Allison will have the benefit of leading returning receiver Marcus Simms, who caught 46 passes for 699 yards and two touchdowns last season, as well as T.J. Simmons, who contributed 341 yards and a TD on 28 receptions. But the new QB won't be able to rely on former All-American David Sills V, who caught an eye-popping 33 touchdown passes over the last two seasons, or Gary Jennings Jr., who posted 151 receptions for 2,013 yards and 14 TDs over the same period. Expect the new coaching staff to offer Sam Jones and Ricky Johns an opportunity to grab a starting job, and to also experiment with ways to keep athletic receiver/running back Tevin Bush involved.
West Virginia also must replace Trevon Wesco, who tied for the Big 12 lead in receptions among tight ends (26) and ranked second in the league in receiving yards at the position (366). Brown's offenses at Troy didn't target the tight end nearly as often as Holgorsen's as Trojans tight ends caught a combined six passes during Brown's tenure dating back to 2015. Jovanni Haskins and Logan Thimons are the most experienced returning players at the position, and should one emerge as an offensive weapon, that could change.
Fortunately for Brown, he has plenty of talent returning at running back. Kennedy McCoy, Martell Pettaway and Leddie Brown give the Mountaineers a solid trio of experienced and productive ball carriers, and freshman Tony Mathis might be talented enough to work his way into the mix when he arrives this fall.
4. Finding a new leader at linebacker
The Mountaineers must replace several impact players on defense, including long-time safety Dravon Askew-Henry, productive defensive back Toyous Avery Jr. and two starters on the defensive line. But the biggest loss is David Long Jr., who left early for the NFL after emerging as one of the most active and productive linebackers in the Big 12. Long led the Mountaineers with 111 total tackles last year (which ranked fourth in the conference), led the Big 12 with 19.0 tackles for a loss and added a team-best 7.0 sacks, which ranked sixth in the conference. It's very difficult to replace such production, but there's depth at the position.
Shea Campbell and Dylan Tonkery are the top two linebackers in terms of returning experience, and the pair is likely to begin spring practice atop the depth chart. Charlie Benton started the season opener in 2018, but was sidelined the rest of the year and is expected to be limited this spring. Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan played seven games for the Crimson Tide in 2017 before transferring and sitting out last year. He should challenge for a starting role. JoVanni Stewart ranked fourth on the team with 54 tackles a year ago, and though he played safety under the old staff, Stewart would be a perfect fit in the Spear position and is expected to move there this spring.
5. Room for improvement
Spring practice is most important for the new coaching staff to lay a foundation for the program and focus on fundamentals rather than game-planning or strategizing for the upcoming season. Nevertheless, past trends highlight a few areas the Mountaineers and the new coaching staff must work to improve upon.
At Troy, Brown’s offenses were solid but unspectacular. Advanced stats indicate Troy was very inefficient offensively and were therefore highly reliant on explosive plays. Overall, the unit ranked 75th in Offensive S&P+, according to Bill Connelly’s numbers. Diving deeper, the Trojans ranked 94th in the country in Success Rate (39.8 percent) and 105th in Marginal Efficiency (-6.6 percent) on offense. But on the flip side, the Trojans ranked No. 12 among FBS offenses in IsoPPP (1.30), and seventh in Marginal Explosiveness (0.22).
Big plays are great, but consistency is key. West Virginia ranked highly in both Success Rate (47.8 percent, ninth) and Marginal Efficiency (1.6 percent, ninth) as well as IsoPPP (1.36, eighth) and Marginal Explosiveness (0.21, eighth). The Mountaineers were far more consistent and efficient on offense — and were far more successful compared to Troy's 2018 attack. Brown and his coaching staff should benefit from a talented roster, but the coaching staff must improve as well.
On defense, the stats show a far different picture. Troy ranked No. 38 nationally in Defensive S&P+ thanks to a solid, but not spectacular, 44th overall ranking in defensive Success Rate (39.6 percent), and a No. 52 finish in defensive Marginal Efficiency (-5.6 percent), as well as top-30 rankings in the explosiveness measures, IsoPPP (1.09, 28th) and Marginal Explosiveness (-0.03) for defense. The Trojans excelled stopping the run and did an outstanding job putting pressure on the quarterback on early downs. Last year, Troy ranked 14th nationally in defensive Rushing S&P+ (115.7) and second in Standard Downs Sack Rate (8.9 percent).
Conversely, the West Virginia defense was highly inefficient on defense. The Mountaineers fell near the bottom of the national rankings in Success Rate (45.5 percent, 104th) and Marginal Efficiency (0.6 percent, 119th) defensively. The Mountaineers struggled against the run, finishing 82nd in defensive Rushing S&P+ (98.6) and 116th in defensive Rushing Marginal Efficiency (-2.3 percent). But West Virginia was even worse against the pass, ranking 94th in defensive Passing S&P+ (96.3) and 122nd in Passing Downs Marginal Efficiency (2.6 percent).