Historically, WVU spring football exhibitions haven't been a big deal in Morgantown. But that changed this past April 13. Yes, the Mountaineers — loaded offensively in 2018 — are coming off a "disappointing" 8–4 season. Yes, the stars from that offense — Will Grier, David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Yodny Cajuste — are gone. Even head coach Dana Holgorsen took a powder for Houston, a Group of 5 job. Yet when the team ran onto Mountaineer Field for the spring game, 18,865 fans were there to cheer — the third-highest number ever for a WVU spring game. And the reason is the fans’ warm welcome for new coach Neal Brown.
Brown's family-first approach is playing well in the Mountain State. It's playing well within the team confines. Now the question is: Can West Virginia play well within the Big 12?
Brown has a proven track record, winning 10 games in three consecutive seasons at Troy. He's hoping Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall can fill Grier's shoes. He's hoping the question marks on the offensive line are answered. And he's hoping defensive coordinator Vic Koenning can fix the ills of Mountaineer defenses past.
Previewing West Virginia's Offense for 2019
The good news for the Mountaineers' new "get-it-done" offense is that they are stacked with quality running backs. Brown can go with either senior: versatile Kennedy McKoy or powerful Martell Pettaway. He can go with strong sophomore Leddie Brown. Or he can go with elusive 5'9" redshirt sophomore Alec Sinkfield.
The problem is that the offensive line in front of them has major holes to fill. Gone is left tackle Cajuste, although WVU coaches are confident Colton McKivitz can handle the job after moving from the right side. They can also rest easy over the right guard position. Junior Josh Sills has started 22 games there and was a second-team All-Big 12 pick. In the spring, ex-guard Chase Behrndt was giving center a whirl for the first time. Projected right tackle Kelby Wickline sat out the Gold-Blue game with an injury. And senior Michael Brown would be starting for the first time at left guard.
Also in the spring, Kendall, who sat behind Heisman winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray at OU, failed to separate himself from Miami (Fla.) transfer Jack Allison in the quarterback battle. Insiders call it a "coin flip."
As for receivers, Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons has proven to be a leader; redshirt freshman Sam James seems set to burst onto the scene; and Marcus Simms, who was out in the spring with "personal issues," elected to transfer in April.
Previewing West Virginia's Defense for 2019
Gone is the 3-3-5 odd stack of the Holgorsen days. In its place is more of a 4-2 look with hybrid players moving and disguising.
So far so good for the Mountaineers — through spring anyway. The defense proved to be ahead of the offense.
Up front, Brown's staff brought in junior college end Taijh Alston, who initially attended East Carolina. "We recruited him early at Troy," says line coach Jordan Lesley. "Then he started getting some bigger offers. Long kid. Has a lot of natural tools."
At nose guard and tackle, WVU might feature a pair of brothers in junior Darius and sophomore Dante Stills, whose father Gary played nine years in the NFL. Senior Reese Donahue also returns at tackle.
At Bandit, WVU lost former five-star recruit Brendan Ferns to injury, but Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan could be the solution. If not, Zach Sandwisch and Exree Loe were making plays in the spring. At the Mike, Dylan Tonkery is expected to be at full speed after an injury.
Mountaineer coaches love weak-side linebacker Josh Chandler. The Spear or nickel outside linebacker should be JoVanni Stewart, who was fourth on the team in tackles last year. Hakeem Bailey, Keith Washington Jr. and Josh Norwood will man the corner positions, but there are voids to fill at safety after standout Kenny Robinson Jr. decided to transfer in June.
Previewing West Virginia's Specialists for 2019
Brown said heading into spring drills that the biggest special teams question was punting after Billy Kinney's departure. In the spring game, placekicker Evan Staley and redshirt freshman Casey Legg were both punting. Otherwise, WVU should be in fine shape. Simms' departure creates an opening for new weapons to emerge on special teams. Staley, a junior, hit 16-of-20 field goal attempts, including his last 12. Even long snapper Rex Sunahara, whose father Reed is WVU’s volleyball coach, returns.
The general feeling around the West Virginia program is that Holgorsen fled because the cupboard was bare.
That said, don't underestimate the way the Mountaineer fan base has embraced Brown nor the way the team has responded to him.
Brown provided the program a big boost by wrangling Kendall away from Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley. He welcomed Cowan into spring camp. He added junior college transfers Alston, a defensive lineman, and Dreshun Miller, a defensive back. The question is: Will the additions be enough?
Early on this season, keep an eye on WVU's offensive line and young receiving corps. Also, check to see how the Mountaineer defenders adapt to the new scheme. The answers to those questions will help shape Brown’s Year 1 in Morgantown.