As winter's last flakes of snow - hopefully - melt across the Mountain State this weekend, one of the first signs in the change of the seasons is taking place as West Virginia spring football practice begins today in Morgantown.
Entering the program's fourth season as a Big 12 member, the Mountaineers will look to keep their positive momentum rolling after five wins in conference last season, the most since the final season in the Big East, and decide between Skyler Howard and William Crest on who will replace the now-retired Clint Trickett in 2015.
Here are some predictions for West Virginia as spring practice begins today in Morgantown:
Rushel Shell, Wendell Smallwood both finish as top five Big 12 rushers
Despite Dana Holgorsen's offenses being known for incredible passing performances over the course of his coaching career, the West Virginia running back position has enjoyed the most depth since the days of Slaton, Devine, Schmitt and White roaming the backfield in the 2000s.
With Dreamius Smith's graduation this offseason, Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood will have more touches and opportunities to make the running back position an even bigger weapon in Holgorsen's evolving offense.
Shell and Smallwood finished fifth and eighth, respectively, in conference play with six touchdowns and more than 1100 yards on 230 carries, the first time West Virginia had more than one back listed in the final Big 12 rushing rankings and the first time two running backs have been listed since 2008.
Tony Gibson's Defense will finish as top unit in the Big 12
Aside from our prediction for the West Virginia defense, the Mountaineers' defensive coordinator already spoke on his high expectations for the unit this coming season.
"Well, if we're not great on defense, I'm going to be very disappointed and it's going to be a disappointing year for our fans and our team," Gibson said during an interview on the MetroNews Statewide Sportsline back on January 8. "I think we can be really good, as good as anybody in the country."
Gibson will have 10 players returning with starting experience for West Virginia, including senior players like Karl Joseph, Nick Kwiatkoski, Kyle Rose, Terrell Chestnut and Isaiah Bruce across the Mountaineer defense. You can also add in younger players like Daryl Worley, Dravon Henry and others that will continue to improve for West Virginia.
A strong defense will be needed with the offenses like Baylor and others in the Big 12 not moving away from the high-powered spread offenses anytime soon.
Josh Lambert will break Paul Woodside's career FG Record
With names like Pat McAfee and Tyler Bitancurt, West Virginia has enjoyed a considerable strength at the kicker position, which continues with the Mountaineers' current special teams ace, Josh Lambert.
Lambert tied Paul Woodside's 32-year old record of 30 field goals made in a single-season, but the Garland, TX native will set a new program record with the most field goals made by a West Virginia kicker, a record that has been in the books since 1984.
Breaking the record should be easily attainable for Lambert, as he needs 27 field goals makes to break the record in 2015 after seeing his field goal attempts and makes increase, 17-of-23 in 2013 and 30-of-39 in 2014, after his first two seasons in Morgantown.
Daikiel Shorts replaces Kevin White as leading receiver in 2015
As Kevin White and Mario Alford move on to begin their NFL careers, West Virginia will have to replace 174 receptions for nearly 2400 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns worth of production from their returning receivers this season.
Senior Jordan Thompson returns as the leader in receptions (49), yards (598) and touchdowns (two), but junior Daikiel Shorts will be the West Virginia receiver to fill the production left by White and Alford. Shorts, which spent time over the past two seasons as a third or fourth receiving option, will have a greater chance to be a bigger threat for the offense as he showcased in wins over Maryland and Iowa State in 2014.
Skyler Howard beats William Crest, named starting quarterback in 2015
Before Shorts rises to being the next playmaking receiver for West Virginia, Holgorsen and the coaching staff will need to spend the next several months of spring and summer practice sessions to determine who will be Trickett's successor as starting quarterback this season.
Opinion is split among Mountaineer fans of who should get the nod to be starting quarterback between Skyler Howard and William Crest after both showcased their ability at different points of 2014. Both quarterbacks have flags entering spring practice, as Howard suffered through inaccuracy with his pass attempts after replacing Trickett in November and Crest rebounding from last year's shoulder injury.
With both quarterbacks being able to extend plays with their legs, Howard seems to be the better option with the coaching staff being able to alleviate his accuracy problems, while it remains to be seen how Crest bounces back from his injury and only playing in portions of the second half of West Virginia's 54-0 shutout win over Towson last September.