Neal Brown has key questions on both sides of the ball to address in his second spring with the Mountaineers
Expectations were modest for Neal Brown's first season as head coach of the West Virginia Mountaineers, especially given the roster turnover on offense. There were promising signs as West Virginia started 3-1, and later won two of its final three contests, but the Mountaineers finished 5-7 overall and 3-6 in Big 12 play — failing to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2013 — in large part because a five-game midseason losing streak.
Few expect the Mountaineers to compete for a Big 12 title in 2020, yet as West Virginia prepares for spring practice, there is hope the squad will take a step forward in Brown’s second year in Morgantown. With the Sept. 5 season opener in Atlanta against Florida State still six months away, we explore five storylines to watch this spring.
5 Storylines to Watch During West Virginia's Spring Practice
1. Quarterback situation
Neal Brown dipped into the transfer portal twice to address West Virginia's quarterback needs in 2019, and both Austin Kendall (Oklahoma) and Jarret Doege (Bowling Green) spent time atop the depth chart. Kendall started the first nine games of the season but was never fully healthy while dealing with a lingering hand injury, and he suffered an upper-body injury against Iowa State that knocked him out of the game after just one pass attempt. He did not play in any of the final three games and finished the season having completed 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,989 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions while averaging 6.5 yards per pass attempt. Doege took over in mid-November and led West Virginia to a 2-1 record as the starter. He appeared in just four contests with the Mountaineers to preserve a redshirt season.
Given his late-season ascension, WVU's improvement in the win column, and Doege's higher completion percentage (65.8 percent), yards per attempt (6.8), and touchdown-to-interception ratio (7:3), Doege would appear to have the inside track to start in 2020. However, it's too early to count out a healthy Kendall. Plus, the Mountaineers didn't exactly light up the scoreboard with Doege running the offense. WVU averaged 19.0 points per game during his starts – less than the conference-worst 20.6 points per game West Virginia averaged overall.
Backups Jack Allison and Trey Lowe have both transferred, which leaves incoming freshman Garrett Greene (an early enrollee) as the likely third-stringer behind the junior Doege and senior Kendall.
2. Stability on the offensive line
West Virginia ranked 128th nationally (among 130 FBS offenses) in rushing offense (73.25 ypg) and 129th in both yards per carry (2.63) and rushing touchdowns (7). Injuries and a lack of consistency along the offensive line, especially the interior, played a major role in the team's inability to run the ball consistently. Eight players started at least one game, and several made starts at multiple positions. Center Josh Sills suffered a season-ending injury in the third game of the season and transferred to conference rival Oklahoma State. Longtime left tackle Colton McKivitz (who made 47 career starts) and right tackle Kelby Wickline (15 career starts) have each run out of eligibility, leaving the entire unit in flux.
With Sills out, Braison Mays and Chase Behrndt each saw action at both center and guard, while James Gmiter started at both guard spots. Michael Brown made six starts at guard. All four should be in the mix to start in 2020, with Behrndt the likely most likely to begin the season at center. John Hughes is the early favorite to start at one of the tackle spots, and incoming junior college signee Tairiq Stewart, sophomore Junior Uzebu, and redshirt freshman Brandon Yates will each compete for a starting role as well. Brown could also be a factor at tackle, and there's a chance the coaching staff adds a grad transfer, too.
3. Finding offensive playmakers
The running back position wasn't without blame and Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, and Leddie Brown each struggled to establish themselves as game-breakers. Brown led the team in rushing yards (367) and carries (107) and returns as the heavy favorite to be the featured ball carrier following the graduation of McKoy (who ran for 323 yards and a team-high three touchdowns) and Pettaway's transfer to Middle Tennessee. Alec Sinkfield, who has flashed playmaking abilities as a running back and receiver in practice, is due for a larger role after gaining just 59 total yards on 22 offensive touches. Both Brown and Sinkfield are rising juniors.
The receiving corps provided more of a spark and returns several productive players from last year's unit. Sam James led the team in receptions (69) and receiving yards (677) but must be more explosive and consistent as a sophomore. James averaged only 9.81 yards per catch, scored just two touchdowns, and also struggled mightily with drops. T.J. Simmons is the most experienced of the group and caught 35 passes for 455 yards and four touchdowns in 10 games last season. Sean Ryan, who started six times, Bryce Wheaton, Ali Jennings, Isaiah Esdale, and Winston Wright all recorded double-digit receptions, but none appeared in every game. That group should audition for the role left by departed deep threat George Campbell, who led the team with seven touchdowns while averaging 24.7 yards per catch.
4. Inexperience in the secondary
The defense showed promise at various points in 2019, and especially late in the season. In November, the Mountaineers allowed 5.12 yards per play and an average of 371 yards per game, which ranked second and third in the Big 12, respectively. West Virginia held each of its final two opponents to fewer than 300 total yards and expects to return the majority of its front seven, led by defensive linemen Darius and Dante Stills and Jeffery Pooler, Jr., as well as linebackers Dylan Tonkery and Josh Chandler. The return of Taijh Alston and VanDarius Cowan from injury-shortened seasons should also bolster the group.
But there are far more questions in the secondary, and especially at the cornerback position. Only senior Sean Mahone and sophomore Tykee Smith return as starters (Smith moved from a traditional safety spot to the "Spear" hybrid position for the final eight games of the season and excelled) in the five-man unit. Corners Hakeem Bailey and Keith Washington and safety Josh Norwood, who combined to start 57 games, are gone. Nicktroy Fortune has the most experience at corner having appeared in 11 games, including two starts, last season. Dreshun Miller, who was expected to make an immediate impact after joining the Mountaineers from the junior college ranks but missed all of last year instead, is likely to begin the season as the other starter.
Redshirt freshman Tavian Mayo and newcomers Jairo Faverus and Jackie Matthews (who might end up at safety) are on campus and should compete for early playing time. David Vincent-Okoki, the highest-rated player in the team's 2020 recruiting class, is set to join the group this fall.
5. Turn havoc plays into takeaways
West Virginia didn't make life easy for opposing offenses. In terms of creating havoc plays, the Mountaineers ranked No. 34 in the country in passes defended (61), No. 36 in sacks (33), and No. 52 in tackles for a loss (79). WVU ranked No. 48 with a 16.7 percent Havoc Rate (havoc plays divided by total snaps), and 32nd in havoc plays per game (12.17).
However, the unit struggled to convert that pressure into turnovers. In fact, the Mountaineers forced just 14 takeaways throughout the season (six fumble recoveries and eight interceptions), which ranked No. 107 in FBS. West Virginia forced a turnover during 9.21 percent of its opponents' possessions, which ranked 109th.
In addition to the typical advantages in field position (not to mention scoring opportunities created by pick-sixes and scoop-and-score situations) a defense that creates sudden-change situations sets its offense up for success. And based on its performance last year, the West Virginia offense needs all the help it can get.
(Top photo courtesy of @WVUfootball)