In Neal Brown’s first season with the Mountaineers, West Virginia missed out on a bowl game for the first time since 2013 after a 5–7 campaign. However, there was clear improvement toward the end of the season, with road wins at Kansas State and TCU in November.
West Virginia knew it was going to be a rebuilding year in 2019, and it was, but Brown entered a similar situation at Troy in 2015 before winning 10 games in his second season with the Trojans. Many knew this was going to take time, but improvement needs to become apparent with the Mountaineers in 2020.
Previewing West Virginia's Offense for 2020
Jarret Doege replaced Austin Kendall in the fourth quarter of the loss to Texas Tech in early November last season. After that move, WVU went on to win two of its final three games. After coming from Oklahoma as a transfer, Kendall was inconsistent, completing 61.5 percent of his passes for 1,989 yards, 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Doege, after transferring from Bowling Green, threw for 818 yards with seven TDs to three picks in three-plus games — while maintaining his redshirt. Doege, a junior, has the job for now, but Kendall will have a shot to reclaim it.
The running game was dreadful for the Mountaineers last year, averaging just 73.3 yards per game — 128th in FBS. Gone are Martell Pettaway, who transferred to Middle Tennessee, and Kennedy McKoy, but leading rusher Leddie Brown, a junior, is back after finishing with 367 yards and a touchdown. Fourth-year junior Alec Sinkfield and redshirt freshman Tony Mathis will round out the rest of the backfield.
A vast majority of the running game’s troubles could be blamed on the offensive line, which struggled due to injuries and youth. Tackles Colton McKivitz, the 2019 Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year, and Kelby Wickline need to be replaced. The interior, which was the weak point, will need to take a step forward.
The wide receiving corps should be the strength of the offense, led by third-year sophomore Sam James (69 catches, 677 yards, two TDs last season). Senior T.J. Simmons, the veteran, averaged 13.0 yards per catch and had four TDs. Sean Ryan (19 catches, 219 yards), Bryce Wheaton (12 catches, 201 yards, two TDs), Ali Jennings (19 catches, 192 yards, TD), and Isaiah Esdale (15 catches, 171 yards, TD) all played significant snaps a year ago.
Previewing West Virginia's Defense for 2020
Under coordinator Vic Koenning, the Mountaineers had rough outings against Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas Tech, but overall, especially toward the end of the season, showed stark improvement.
Lineman Darius Stills flirted with the NFL but decided to return for his senior year after posting 15 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Younger brother Dante had 11.5 tackles for a loss and seven sacks. Senior Jeffery Pooler Jr. (5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) should round out the starting defensive line, while sophomore Jordan Jefferson and junior Taijh Alston — who suffered a season-ending knee injury after two games last year — will provide depth.
Linebacker Jared Bartlett got his feet wet toward the end of his true freshman season, and the coaching staff says he has a lot of upside. He is versatile and could make a splash at bandit, along with junior VanDarius Cowan, the Alabama transfer coming off a knee injury. Junior Josh Chandler, also coming off a knee injury toward the end of last season, finished second on the team with 71 tackles; his instincts allow him to play in the middle. Senior Dylan Tonkery and junior Exree Loe will likely rotate on the weak side.
Keith Washington II and Hakeem Bailey locked down the cornerback spots last season, but both graduated, leaving two key voids on the perimeter. Sophomore Nicktroy Fortune played in 11 games as a true freshman and is likely to grab one spot, but some combination of redshirt freshman Tae Mayo, New Hampshire transfer Alonzo Addae and juco transfer Jackie Matthews will try to take the other. Dreshun Miller, who missed all of last season due to injury, redshirted but was highly touted during his recruitment.
Sophomore Tykee Smith grabbed hold of the Spear safety spot as a true freshman and never let go. He finished fifth on the team with 51 tackles and had two interceptions, including a pick-6. Brown believes senior Sean Mahone can become an NFL player if he continues to play the way he did at the end of last season at Cat, while Arizona graduate transfer Scottie Young will join the team this summer and should push for time at safety, especially after Kerry Martin opted out for 2020.
Related: Ranking the Big 12 Coaches for 2020
Previewing West Virginia's Specialists for 2020
Senior Evan Staley made 11-of-17 field goals but is much more consistent inside 40 yards. Aussie punter Josh Growden is gone, so Troy transfer Tyler Sumpter, Kolton McGhee, Leighton Bechdel and Evan Matthes will vie to win the job. Winston Wright Jr. returned a kickoff for a touchdown against Baylor, and the sophomore speedster could lock down kick returns, while Alec Sinkfield is a steady hand on punt returns.
The Mountaineers' offense will go only as far as the offensive line will take it. The running game will need to make major improvements over last season. The defense has the potential to be one of the best units in the Big 12, but it needs to find two cornerbacks quickly. A bowl game is achievable for this team after missing out in 2019.
National Ranking: 56
(Top photo by Brian McWalters/WVU Athletics)