West Virginia opens its third spring under coach Neal Brown with optimism and plenty to like going into the 2021 college football season. After finishing 5-7 in Brown’s first year, the Mountaineers took a step forward last fall with a 6-4 record and a win over Army in the Liberty Bowl to cap the ’20 campaign.
The Mountaineers bring back 14 starters for ’21, including quarterback Jarret Doege, running back Leddie Brown, and a solid foundation to build around on defense. For West Virginia to jump from six wins to eight or nine, Brown’s team has to get better play from Doege and fill a couple of voids that have popped up on defense this offseason.
5 Storylines to Watch During West Virginia's Spring Practices
1. Develop Jarret Doege
If West Virginia is going to take the next step into the top 25 and contend for a spot in the Big 12 title game, improved quarterback play is a must. Doege was solid in his first full year as the starter last fall, completing 63.9 percent of his throws for 2,587 yards and 14 scores. The Texas native tossed only four picks over 374 attempts and had a stretch of four consecutive 300-yard games. However, he had only three completions of 40-plus yards and tied for seventh among Big 12 quarterbacks by averaging 6.9 yards per attempt. Getting Doege to elevate his play is the top priority here, but redshirt freshman Garrett Greene – the No. 21 dual-threat quarterback in the 2020 signing class – also has a chance to make a case for the starting nod this spring.
2. Continue Building Up Front
After struggling up front in 2019, West Virginia’s offensive line took a step forward in ’20. The Mountaineers averaged 3.8 yards per rush – up from 2.6 in ’19 – and allowed 21 sacks. While this group is trending in the right direction, more improvement is needed in ’21. Also, center Chase Behrndt and guard Michael Brown have departed, leaving two vacancies on the interior. Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester is likely to slide into a starting role somewhere, and James Gmiter – a 10-game starter in ’19 – could join Brandon Yates (LT), Zach Frazier (LG or C), and John Hughes (RT) in the starting lineup. Better play and more overall depth are two goals to accomplish this spring.
3. Better Play at Receiver
West Virginia quarterbacks have plenty of pass catchers available at their disposal with seven of its top eight statistical wide receivers (and a key tight end) returning in 2021. While the experience is a huge positive, the Mountaineers need better play here. As a team, West Virginia had 31 dropped passes last fall. More big plays are also needed after the team generated just three connections of 40-plus yards. Three freshmen – including four-star recruit Kaden Prather - enrolled in time to compete in spring ball. Winston Wright, Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Sean James, and Sean Ryan are a good foundation on the outside, but more consistency and production would help the Mountaineers improve in ’21.
4. Fill the Voids Up Front
Despite losing standout lineman Darius Stills and linebacker Tony Fields, West Virginia should have one of the better defensive fronts in the Big 12. Filling the voids left behind by both players does provide some intrigue this spring, however. The addition of Penn State transfer Lance Dixon bolsters a linebacker unit already featuring Josh Chandler-Semedo, Exree Loe, Jared Bartlett, and Vandarius Cowan. Up front, look for Dante Stills, Akheem Mesidor, Jeffery Pooler, Taijh Alston, and Jordan Jefferson to handle the bulk of the snaps. The standouts up front will be missed, but co-coordinators Jordan Lesley and ShaDon Brown have more than enough to keep these units performing at a high level.
5. Surprising Reload in the Secondary
West Virginia has suffered two surprising losses this offseason from a secondary that ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 in pass efficiency defense for 2020. Standout safety Tykee Smith entered the transfer portal in late March, which followed Dreshun Miller’s decision to leave for Auburn in February. The cupboard isn’t completely empty, however. Safeties Alonzo Addae and Sean Mahone are back at safety, while Nicktroy Fortune returns at cornerback. Additionally, Arizona transfer Scottie Young Jr. is eligible to play, and safety Kerry Martin is back after opting out of last season. This is a big spring for players like Daryl Porter, Jackie Matthews and Jairo Faverus to push for a starting nod at cornerback.
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(Neal Brown photo courtesy of @WVUFootball)