West Virginia’s entrance to the Big 12 hasn’t gone according to plan. The Mountaineers started 5-0 in 2012 and seemed to have all of the momentum on their side. But since that 5-0 start, Dana Holgorsen’s team is just 6-14 in its last 20 games. Holgorsen is starting to feel a little heat, and a schedule that features non-conference games against Alabama and Maryland, along with road trips to Oklahoma State and Texas won’t provide any breaks.
Despite the disappointing 4-8 mark last year, West Virginia has reasons for optimism entering 2014. Holgorsen’s offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions, but will a quarterback emerge? On defense, improvement was noticeable last season. However, injuries wreaked havoc and forced the Mountaineers to dip deeper into the depth chart for replacements. The injuries hurt the starting lineup last year, but West Virginia has more depth and talent on defense entering 2014.
This is a crucial spring for Holgorsen. West Virginia was a few plays away from getting to a bowl last year. Can the Mountaineers find the right solutions as they enter their third season of Big 12 action?
West Virginia Mountaineers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (2-7)
Spring Practice Opens: March 2
Spring Game: April 12
Five Things to Watch in West Virginia’s 2014 Spring Practice
1. The quarterbacks: Considering Dana Holgorsen’s background, it was surprising to see West Virginia’s offense ranked near the bottom of the Big 12 in points scored last season. The Mountaineers averaged 26.3 points per game and 5.5 yards per play in 2013, which isn’t awful, but certainly not up to the level most expected from this unit. Three quarterbacks received snaps last year, and Holgorsen enters spring practice with plenty of uncertainty. Clint Trickett led the team with 1,605 passing yards, but he will miss spring practice due to shoulder surgery. Ford Childress transferred, leaving Paul Millard (1,122 yards, 6 TDs) and junior college recruit Skyler Howard as the frontrunners for the starting job. Incoming freshman William Crest could work his way into the mix in the fall. Can Millard seize the job with Trickett sidelined? Or will Howard make an impression? Junior college recruits are hit or miss, so it’s not guaranteed that Howard can make an immediate impact. If West Virginia finds stability here, the offense will easily improve on last year’s numbers.
2. Developing a pecking order at running back: Holgorsen would prefer his offense to lean on the pass, but West Virginia has one of the deepest backfields in the Big 12. Pittsburgh transfer Rushel Shell is an intriguing option after sitting out last year due to NCAA rules. Shell rushed for 641 yards with the Panthers in 2012. Dreamius Smith rushed for 494 yards and five touchdowns last season and opened spring practice at No. 1 on the depth chart. Wendell Smallwood and Dustin Garrison are back after combining for 240 yards in 2013, while Andrew Buie rejoins the team after a year absence. There’s no shortage of options here. Will Shell emerge as the go-to back? Or will Smith and Shell end up sharing carries?
3. Breaking in three new starters on the line: Neither of the above storylines will have much of an impact on the 2014 season if West Virginia struggles to find replacements for three starters on the line. Tackles Nick Kindler and Curtis Feight and center Pat Eger have expired their eligibility, leaving guard Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski as the only returning starters. Spain and Glowinski should be a solid pairing at guard, but can the Mountaineers find some clarity at the other positions? Tyler Orlosky is the early frontrunner at center after starting three games last season. Sophomore Adam Pankey opened spring practice holding the No. 1 spot at left tackle, while junior Marquis Lucas is slated to start at right tackle. However, Holgorsen added competition from the recruiting trail in the form of junior college recruits Justin Scott and Sylvester Townes, and redshirts Marcell Lazard and Tyler Tezeno will factor into the mix. There’s plenty of competition and options here for line coach Ron Crook. Can he exit spring feeling confident about the three vacated positions from 2013?
4. Coaching staff tweaks on defense: The Mountaineers were hit with a surprising departure in early February when defensive coordinator Keith Patterson bolted Morgantown for Arizona State. Holgorsen had to act quickly to replace Patterson with spring practice approaching, and long-time assistant Tony Gibson will call the plays in 2014. Gibson is known as an excellent recruiter but has never been a defensive coordinator. Damon Cogdell was hired to coach the defensive line from Miramar High School, but the key addition on Holgorsen’s staff was former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley. With Gibson calling the defensive signals for the first time, having a veteran like Bradley will help with developing the gameplan, as well as making in-game adjustments.
5. Finding replacements on the defensive line: Each unit on West Virginia’s defense has holes to fill, but the line needs to replace end Will Clarke and nose tackle Shaq Rowell. Clarke was a second-team All-Big 12 selection last year, while Rowell recorded 47 tackles and was a key cog as the team’s 3-4 nose tackle position. Sophomore Christian Brown played in four games due to injuries in 2013 and is slated to replace Rowell at nose tackle. Kyle Rose should be one of the leaders up front as he started 11 games last season and recorded 49 tackles. Senior Dontrill Hyman opened spring practice as the No. 1 end opposite of Rose, but West Virginia needs to find more depth here. Freshman Davonte James is a name to watch this spring, while redshirt freshman Jon Lewis and sophomore Noble Nwachukwu will be looking to carve out a bigger role in the line rotation this year. Cogdell’s first spring in Morgantown will be busy with an unsettled depth chart in the trenches.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 5-7
If you trust recruiting rankings, West Virginia has the No. 6 roster in the Big 12 for 2014. So while the roster may have some inexperience, there is some talent available for Holgorsen and his staff. Going 4-8 is always going to put a coach on the hot seat, but Holgorsen deserves some time to navigate West Virginia through the conference transition. On the surface, four wins last year was a significant disappointment. However, the Mountaineers lost in overtime to Texas and Iowa State. A couple of breaks in a different direction and West Virginia is 6-6 and playing in a bowl. Improvement should be noticeable in 2014. But a non-conference schedule featuring games against Alabama and Maryland doesn’t allow any margin for error.