The West Virginia Mountaineers are back in business this week, as preparations for the 2018 season officially begin, with spring practice getting underway as Dana Holgorsen begins his eighth season as head coach.
The Mountaineers are looking for a bounce-back season. The program had its best season since joining the Big 12 back in 2016, going 10-3 and 7-2 in conference play. But last season was a relative disappointment, finishing 7-6 and in a virtual four-way tie for fourth in the Big 12 at 5-4. But WVU’s season-ending three-game losing streak coincided with star quarterback Will Grier’s finger injury he suffered early against Texas.
5 Storylines to Watch During West Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. Will Grier’s finger
Grier (above, right) underwent surgery on the aforementioned finger back in November. He was listed as questionable for the Heart of Dallas Bowl against Utah, but the coaching staff wisely let Grier heal. As we get ready for spring practice, it’s time to see how Grier looks. He was cleared to throw in late January and now he can start testing it out in drills, practice and even some light competition.
With all of the turnover at quarterback in the Big 12, Grier is the best player in the conference returning at the position. Getting him healthy and comfortable should be the top goal of the Mountaineers this spring.
2. Running game?
The Mountaineers ranked fifth in the Big 12 with 150 rushing yards per game. But they actually averaged a solid 4.2 yards per carry. The problem is, with first-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, they backed off the running game a bit with just 460 rushing attempts. In 2016, West Virginia ran the ball 574 times, averaging 5.2 yards per carry and 228 yards on the ground per game.
It’s tough to tell in spring ball, but does Spavital have or show any intentions of changing that? Even with 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford out of eligibility, the Mountaineers have a couple of solid junior running backs returning in Kennedy McKoy (596 yards in 2017) and Martell Pettaway (149).
3. Defensive line
This was an area of weakness for West Virginia’s defense last season, as the unit gave up a Big 12-worst 204 rushing yards per game. The 3-3-5 scheme of defensive coordinator Tony Gibson worked wonders in 2016, but struggled last season as the Mountaineers couldn’t get much pressure on the quarterback (24, tied for sixth in the Big 12). They lose a promising player in defensive lineman Adam Shuler, who decided to transfer, but their top prospect in the 2018 recruiting class is four-star DE Dante Stills, who joins his brother, sophomore DE Darius Stills. The spring will be a good chance to get a first look at the Stills brothers and get a sense of how much impact they may have this fall.
4. Defensive backs
WVU loses three senior starters along its five-man back end. Cornerbacks Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels Jr. are gone, along with safety Kyzir White. In this 3-3-5 scheme, WVU’s defense often goes as the defensive backs perform. More will be expected from veterans Dravon Askew-Henry, Hakeem Bailey, Sean Mahone, along with a pair of junior college transfers in cornerback Keith Washington and safety Joshua Norwood.
5. Field goal kicking
As always, the numbers tell the story. The Mountaineers attempted the fewest field goals in the Big 12 last season with just 15. They only made 11 of them, good for a 73.3 percent clip, which eighth in the conference. WVU enters the 2018 season with big expectations, but any team with conference title aspirations needs a reliable kicking game. Mike Molina (5-of-8 on FGs in 2017) has graduated, so the pressure is on rising sophomore Evan Staley, who made six of his seven attempts last season, to not only seize the job, but show consistency and confidence when called on this spring.
— Written by Pete Mundo, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network as well as owner and operator of HeartlandCollegeSports.com, a site for Big 12 fans. Mundo also is a college football analyst for Sports Illustrated’s SI Now and a sports anchor at CBS Sports Radio. He can be found on Twitter @PeteMundo. Follow Heartland College Sports on Twitter @Heartland_CS.