West Virginia head coach Neal Brown went into an odd 2020 season with the expectation that the Mountaineers would be one of the most improved teams in the nation. A 6–4 finish (4–4 in the Big 12) with some solid stats to back up that record allowed Brown to say he had met his goal. Now, in Brown's third season in Morgantown, the next step for his program is to compete at the top of the Big 12, and key returners across the board could make that goal a reality.
The offense will be a veteran group that shows flashes in both the pass and run game but still needs to find consistency. Defensively, the Mountaineers finished No. 1 nationally in pass defense and in the top five in total defense, but NFL aspirations and head-scratching transfers hit that unit hard in the offseason. Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley is now the sole man in charge of that unit after sharing duties with Jahmile Addae, who departed for Georgia.
Previewing West Virginia's Offense for 2021
Although it was a 24–21 victory, the Liberty Bowl against Army brought up a lot of questions at the quarterback spot heading into the offseason. Jarret Doege started all 10 games last year, but a poor first half against the Black Knights forced Brown to go to Austin Kendall in the second. Doege still had a good season, throwing for 2,587 yards with 14 touchdowns and just four interceptions, and he will be the favorite to win the job heading into this season. Redshirt freshman Garrett Greene and true freshman Will Crowder will battle to be his backup.
The offense will likely revolve around running back Leddie Brown after he ran for 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns last year. Tony Mathis Jr. and A'Varius Sparrow will get carries, and the Mountaineers have a dynamic duo coming in as part of the 2021 recruiting class in Jaylen Anderson and Justin Johnson Jr. There is a wealth of experience at receiver, led by Sam James, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Winston Wright Jr. James is hoping to bounce back from a disappointing 2020, while Wright and Ford-Wheaton hope to take the next step after combining for 74 catches, 969 yards and five touchdowns. Sean Ryan, Reese Smith, Sam Brown and Isaiah Esdale have all started games in the past. At tight end, Mike O'Laughlin and T.J. Banks are red zone and short-yardage threats.
The offensive line is loaded with experience. Brandon Yates established himself at left tackle, Zach Frazier will slide from guard to center and James Gmiter and Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester will slide into the roles at guard. Virginia transfer Ja'Quay Hubbard will also see significant playing time.
Previewing West Virginia's Defense for 2021
The Mountaineers were stellar defensively last season but lost a lot of productive players, including Darius Stills at nose tackle. The defensive line should still be a strength, led by Darius' younger brother Dante, who had 10.5 tackles for a loss from his defensive tackle spot in 2020. Jeffery Pooler Jr. opted to return for another year, and Akheem Mesidor is coming off a Freshman All-America campaign in which he finished with five sacks.
The Mountaineers got one excellent season from Tony Fields II, who now leaves a gaping hole at middle linebacker. Josh Chandler-Semedo is the likely replacement, moving from Will linebacker, while Exree Loe will get reps. At Bandit, VanDarius Cowan and Jared Bartlett will get the most looks.
Transfers hit the secondary hard — most notably safety Tykee Smith, an All-American in 2020 who transferred to Georgia. The good news is that Sean Mahone and Alonzo Addae opted to return for another year at the other safety spots. Arizona transfer Scottie Young started the bowl game in Smith's place and will likely replace him at Spear. He played in 32 games with the Wildcats before transferring prior to the 2020 season. Cornerback Dreshun Miller surprised the coaching staff by transferring to Auburn, but Nicktroy Fortune is a returning starter at the other spot. Jackie Matthews and Daryl Porter Jr. are the favorites to replace Miller. Illinois State transfer Charles Woods is another name to watch at corner.
Previewing West Virginia's Specialists for 2021
Placekicker Evan Staley was injured toward the end of last year and was replaced by Casey Legg and Tyler Sumpter. The three combined to make 14-of-20 field-goal attempts and will battle it out in camp. Sumpter handled the majority of punting duties that required precision, while Kolton McGhee handled longer punts. The Mountaineers will need to replace Alec Sinkfield as a punt returner after he transferred to Boston College. Wright could handle kick returns after he returned 20 last season for an average of 21.3 yards.
The Mountaineers need to take another step forward in Brown's third year, and with a veteran offensive group, they should be better on that side of the ball. The defense needs to replace a lot of star power, but there are still pieces in place where the drop-off shouldn't be too damaging. Staying in conference title contention in late November will be the main goal for this group.
National Ranking: 33
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Dante Stills photo courtesy of West Virginia Athletics)