For the West Virginia Mountaineers 2015 was a tale of two seasons. After finishing the month of October 0-4, head coach Dana Holgorsen righted the ship to 5-1 the rest of the way, including a record-setting Cactus Bowl victory over Arizona State.
After athletic director Shane Lyons gave Holgorsen a less-than-enthusiastic endorsement for 2016 all eyes will be on the Mountaineers in what may be a pivotal season for the sixth-year head coach. Looking past whether or not Holgorsen is on the hot seat, here are four things to keep an eye on as spring practice approaches in Morgantown.
4 Storylines to Watch During West Virginia’s Spring Practice
1. Replacing the Big 12 rushing champion
West Virginia will return the majority of its starters on offense. However, one of those not coming back is Big 12 rushing champion Wendell Smallwood. In his place the Mountaineers will look to redshirt senior Rushel Shell to take over the ground-oriented attack. Shell finished 2015 as the team’s second-leading rusher with 708 yards on 161 carries.
Former 4-star recruit, Donte Thomas-Williams, also figures to see playing time this season after being limited to just 43 yards on 14 carries last season. And keep an eye on junior college transfer Justin Crawford, who rushed for more than 3,000 yards in two seasons at Northwset Mississippi Community College.
However, this is setting up to be Shell’s season to shine. Expect him to see the same kind of workload Smallwood (238 carries) saw last season.
2. There is no quarterback controversy
Holgorsen has been steadfast that senior quarterback Skyler Howard is his starter. Howard was often the fall guy for the Mountaineers last season, especially during that October stretch where they went 0-4. But Holgorsen has given no indication that anyone is on Howard’s heels.
Despite his struggles, Howard also showed signs of improvement, including his season-ending performance in the Cactus Bowl where he set a school postseason record with 532 passing yards. This will be Howard’s second full season as the Mountaineers starter. And history shows quarterbacks under Holgorsen tend to shine in such situations.
Although Howard should be the clear starter entering next fall he will not be given the job outright. Redshirt sophomore William Crest Jr. and redshirt freshman Chris Chugunoz will each get their chance to compete for the starting spot. Also do not completely count out David Sills, who burst onto the scene last season as a wide receiver.
3. Rebuilding the D
Safeties Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon, cornerbacks Terrell Chestnut, Daryl Worley and Rick Rumph, linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski, Shaq Petteway and Jared Barber, and defensive lineman Kyle Rose are all gone. For those counting at home, these departures accounted for 19 West Virginia's 23 interceptions last season.
To potentially further complicate matters there is an entirely new coaching staff for the secondary as well. Matt Caponi will be in his first season as the Mountaineers’ safeties coach and Blue Adams will be in his first season as cornerbacks coach.
All is not lost though. Many of the players slated to replace these departures are familiar names. Jarrod Harper replaced the injured Joseph (who played just four games) and returns in 2016. Jeremy Tyler will replace Dillon. Drevon Askew-Henry and Miami transfer Antonio Crawford are slated to start at cornerback positions along with Rasul Douglas. Holgorsen also signed four junior college prospects that could step in right away, including Kyzir White, the brother of former standout wide receiver Kevin White.
Despite losing all three starting linebackers, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson can take comfort in that position being one of the deepest on the team. Xavier Preston, Al Rasheed-Benton and Sean Walters will more than likely step into those open spots. However, do not be surprised to see David Long get first-team reps in the spring. Coveted linebacker prospect Brendan Ferns will join the Mountaineers in the fall.
Losing Rose definitely hurts up front, but Darrien Howard had his share of snaps in 2015 and by no means disappointed. Howard should be a more-than-viable replacement for Rose.
4. Stacked at wide receiver
No matter who is under center come fall he will have a variety of options in the passing game. The Mountaineers return their two top receivers from 2015 and four of their top six.
Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts combined for 81 receptions and 1,398 yards last season. Back also is Jovon Durante, who may be the fastest player, let alone receiver, on the team. Also returning is Gary Jennings, Ka’Raun White and the aforementioned, Sills, who made the switch from quarterback to wideout.
The wide receiver position is one no one will worry about. The amount of speed and talent returning in 2016 should allow any quarterback to be successful.
Pre-Spring West Virginia Outlook in the Big 12
If Skyler Howard is able to build off of his impressive performance in the Cactus Bowl, the Mountaineers’ offense should as potent as any in the Big 12 Conference. Losing leading rusher Wendell Smallwood does hurt but Rushel Shell has been waiting for his opportunity to shine and it has finally arrived.
There will be growing pains on defense, which may require West Virginia to improve upon its scoring (34.0 ppg).
The Mountaineers also will face a tougher schedule in 2016. Gone are games against FCS member Liberty, Georgia Southern from the Sun Belt and Maryland. In their place is the season opener against Missouri from the SEC, a matchup with BYU in Landover, Md., and a home game versus Youngstown State. Fortunately, West Virginia will not face a gauntlet like they did last October as its Big 12 schedule doesn’t stack the Mountaineers against the best the conference has to offer all in one month.
— Written by Jeremy Simon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and editor-in-chief of BlueGoldSports.com, a must visit for any and all West Virginia Mountaineer fans. Follow BlueGoldSports.com on Twitter @Blue_GoldSports.