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West Virginia Football: Five Freshman Poised To Contribute In 2017

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Several years ago, West Virginia was forced to rely on freshman to contribute to the team’s success. Fast forward to 2017, a new batch of underclassmen are earning their way onto the field despite contending with a much deeper pool of talent.

Geoff Coyle

If you look back to Dana Holgorsen’s earliest days in Morgantown, the DNA of the Mountaineer roster was, to put it politely, drastically different. Yes, there was front-loaded talent like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Karl Joseph. But aside from the NFL-caliber talent that would routinely dominate the headlines, the Mountaineers were treacherously thin from the two-deep on.

One of the ways that Holgorsen and his then staff tried to combat this lack of depth was taking freshman, many of whom were just trying to find their way around campus and acclimate to college life, and insert them into contributing and starting roles. The results were, at best, mixed during those seasons.

The 2013 and 2014 seasons are not fondly regarded for a reason. 4-8 and 7-6 records, respectively, are well below the threshold of what most Mountaineer fans would consider acceptable. To add to the frustration, there was a sense that recruiting was wayward in its approach. West Virginia has never dominated the recruiting rankings like an Alabama or an Ohio State, but losing battles down in Texas didn’t seem to be the most effective strategy in trying remedy the notable lack of in-state talent. Likewise, the success that we are now seeing from the JUCO ranks was still in its beta phase.

Thankfully, as we enter the 2017-2018 season, the roster, as it stands, is a far different creature. Depth is no longer a concern. The coaching staff has a cohesive plan to execute with regard to recruiting, both high school and JUCO, that is paying huge dividends. Talent is being developed over the course of years and, with that, comes subject matter expertise at each position. The younger faces on the roster are no longer being thrust into battle prematurely. If there are freshman making a name for themselves this year, it’s because their talent and their hard work has earned them that opportunity. Here are five freshman that are poised to do just that this coming season.

Reggie Roberson, WR, Mesquite, TX

Of all the position groups, West Virginia’s wide receiver corps might be its most unheralded coming into this season. The talking heads would have you to believe that Daikiel Shorts and Shelton Gibson leaving for the NFL is a sign that this group will regress significantly in 2017. To that, I say: sell. Sell, sell sell.

This is a deep and versatile group that will benefit from some of the new arrivals pushing the program veterans to continually earn and re-earn their starting spots on the depth chart.

Reggie Roberson, a Mesquite Horn product, is just that guy.

While the Texas native eluded most Big XII and in-state programs during his recruitment, the one time Washington State lean bears all the qualities of a future star in the making. A track star who is now in camp with the team, he has the size at 6’3” to be a difference maker on the outside for years to come. Roberson has a chip on his shoulder and position coach Tyron Carrier, mr. personality himself, plans to manipulate that to the best of his ability.

While veterans Gary Jennings, Ka’raun White and Jovon Durante all figure to rotate at the outside receiver positions, don’t be surprised to see Roberson emerge as a favorite red zone target, an area of the field where the Mountaineers have struggled mightily in recent years.

As West Virginia continues to focus on recruiting bigger, stronger body types across the board, Roberson stands to become the standard for the next era of receivers at West Virginia. Big, tough and with something to prove to the home state programs that passed on him at every turn, Roberson could become a household name to Mountaineer fans sooner rather than later.

Lamonte McDougle, DT, Delray, FL

A particular area of concern going into the season is defensive line. While the losses on defense were many, the front three was wiped clean as Christian Brown, Darrien Howard and Noble Nwachuku are all battling for a Sunday job at the pro level. That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, however. Several players with game experience return and, going back to the refrain about building depth, there are several options up front for the Mountaineers to rotate up front. However, one player that is already making an impression in just his few days in a blue jersey is freshman Lamonte McDougle.

McDougle, first-off, looks every bit the defensive lineman that you would want asserting his own violent gravitational field in the trenches. Both his father Stockar and uncle Jerome enjoyed long NFL careers for the the Lions and Eagles, respectively, so his 6’0”, 303 pound frame comes honestly. In addition, McDougle was an all-state wrestler. Adding up all the individual factors, it doesn’t take for one long to arrive at a pretty clear conclusion: McDougle is custom-built to absolutely man-handle opposing linemen.

Obviously, with any spring chicken that’s brand new to the college game, there will be lots of trial and error, both with regard to technique and scheme. However in this case, where one is going to be playing either a zero or a three technique, aggression and physicality can make up for a lot.

I like McDougle’s odds of challenging both Jaleel Fields and Xavier Pegues for snaps this season. I like the dynamic he brings in the middle of the line with his athleticism and in a defense like Gibby’s, which eternally, almost gleefully, sends its cornerbacks out to no-man’s land, there’s no overstating how valuable push up front is. That’s just what McDougle is here to do.

Tevin Bush, WR/RB/ST, New Orleans, LA

Scuttlebug. Spark plug. Mountain hornet (ok, I just made that one up). Tevin Bush is being called a lot of things because he is a lot of things. Search Youtube for his high school tape and you’ll see a perpetual blur running amok on the field. That’s Bush. From all places, from all angles, from tangent universes, probably.

The Landry-Walker graduate arrived in Morgantown as an early enrollee in order to get a jump start on what can be a massive first year learning curve. That he should still be in high school may not shock you based on his size alone (5’7”, 170), but to see him run and change course mid-spring will instantly remind you over some other mountain wasps ala Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. Those are good comparisons, in case you weren’t sure.

It’s a guessing game, at this point, what Jake Spavital will do from a play-calling perspective. Will he go five wide and throw darts down field for four quarters? Will he run zone out of the diamond and work Justin Crawford and co. for all their worth? Will it be a witches brew of both?? Will he run Spider 2 Banana Peel??? Hard to say. But what we can and should expect, is for Tevin Bush to get in on the action. With his ability to take carries out of the back field, line up in the slot and step in as a return man on special teams, he’s a multi-tool begging to be unfolded.

While his redshirt could stay intact this season, I foresee the prospect of adding in packages to suit Bush’s vast array of skills to be too tempting a prospect for Jake Spavital to forego. I’m thinking of mountain wasp- mountain SUPER HORNET Tavon Austin several years ago. There was no redshirt for him and I think that turned out just fine for him. The addition of Tevin Bush to an already versatile offense will make things that much harder for opposing defenses to game plan around. I kind of like the sound of that.

Brendan Ferns, LB, St. Clairsville, OH

Ain’t no Mountaineer fall camp like a Mountaineer camp with a player incurring some sort of significant injury. Last year, it was true freshman, prized recruit and Army All-American Brendan Ferns. The groan heard ‘round Mountaineer nation was prodigious, as it should have been. Ferns was a hard won talent who figured to step immediately into an impact role where he could learn both the SAM and MIKE linebacker spots in order to add depth.

Clearly, those plans were put on ice.

Now, as camp opens a year later, Ferns is 100% full-go and the initial results are nothing if not favorable. For one to test out at “elite”, well, you have to be pretty athletically gifted. That’s an incredible boon to a linebacker corps that loses the production for Justin Arndt and Sean Walters. Athleticism, for a player like Ferns, means that he’ll be able to line up at multiple spots, depending on the particular need at that point in time, and either drop into coverage or blitz out of any number of looks.

Most importantly, it means that Ferns has no physical limitations that would hinder him to living up to his billing as an ESPN 300 prospect coming out of Ohio. Tony Gibson, who also coaches linebackers apart from masterminding the Pond Fork defense, is a huge fan of disguising his coverages and blitzes and the middle of the field is particularly crucial in that sense. While Al-Rasheed Benton may be the grizzled veteran calling out the packages from the huddle, Ferns will be an amazing force-multiplier solely via his ability to shut down short routes across the field but also by stopping outside runs and filling the gaps that the line are working so hard to open up.

Whether there’s a shuffle of players to help account for David Long’s injury, we’ll have to wait and see. What’s certain is that in either backing up Benton at the MIKE or inserting himself at either SAM or WILL, indeed, there are many, many reasons why we should be excited for Brendan Ferns to finally make good on all the fanfare from a year ago.

Dylan Tonkery, LB, Bridgeport, WV

Last year, especially the latter half, served as the coming out party for linebacker David Long. An undersized, energetic linebacker in the mold of Oklahoma’s Eric Striker, Long was held up to be arguably the best returning player this year on Tony Gibson’s defense. Then the injury thing happened, like it’s wont to do, and everybody collectively banged their heads against the wall.

The good (albeit unexpected news) is that home-grown product and Mountaineer legacy Dylan Tonkery has emerged from relative obscurity to push for a starting role come September 3rd against Virginia Tech.

Like Ferns, Tonkery ended the summer lull of weights, food, eat, sleep, rinse/repeat by testing at an elite level. Like Ferns, that means that Tonkery is about as athletic as a college athlete can be. It’s also far more a certainty that he’s 10 times as athletic as you or me; no offense. One thing that cannot be logically argued against, is that having shot up to 220 lbs since last season, the younger Tonkery brother certainly looks the part of an outside linebacker.

The Bridgeport, WV product has done nothing but impress the coaching staff this summer with his play and has seemingly transformed over the course of his redshirt year into something resembling a starting Big XII linebacker.

Tonkery is still very much an unknown resource and will still have to head off JUCO transfer Quondarius Qualls to lock down the WILL spot. In addition, David Long could be back before week four of the season and, as far as proven commodities are concerned, Long has a considerable edge there.

Yet, for West Virginia to under-produce talent in perpetuity, it’s always great to see a native son take advantage of an opportunity and start making a name for himself. Odds are, Dylan Tonkery will soon be giving us plenty of opportunities to celebrate his ascension.