Greetings, fellow rebels, as I type at you live from Hoth, home of the furthest, farthest outpost of the rebel alliance.
Not really, but it wouldn’t be far off. It’s cold here in the mid-Atlantic and I’ve been sitting here today reflecting on the football season that was as well as the season that will come to pass. Yeah, I know it’s basketball season and a top-10 in-conference match up is only two days away but football is something I’m passionate about so, in my best Frank Costanza voice, you’re gonna hear about this!
In the spirit of providing you all with some much needed heat on this barren and merciless day, here are five hot takes and predictions about West Virginia football in 2018.
I still think David Sills will finish as the best receiver to play at WVU
Some of you may have read a piece I did just over two months ago on Sills and what I thought his legacy at West Virginia would be when all was said and done. In retrospect, his season, great as it was, stalled in the last few games due largely to Will Grier’s finger taking a hard right turn in the wrong direction.
Whatever the case, 980 yards and 18 TD’s for a guy who had only moonlighted at the receiver position prior to this past season is just mind-boggling. Looking ahead, it doesn’t a doctorate in statistical analysis to see that 2018 could be a special season not just for the entire program, but for Sills in particular. Will Grier will be back under center, almost the entire O-line returns, Gary Jennings will resume his trouble-making ways, both Kennedy McCoy and Martell Pettaway return to the backfield and heralded transfers TJ Simmons and Jovani Haskins will finally get to suit up. Now for what this all means:
Unlike Kevin White in 2014, Sills will be surrounded by a cache of capable weapons that defenses can ill-afford to ignore. With another offseason of physical and mental preparation, the 6’4” senior will figure to be stronger, faster, smarter and more at ease out wide. Sills and Grier already exhibited the type of timing that offensive coordinators drool over, so it’s not too much to assume that in 2018 their connection will be bordering on the telepathic. I can’t give you a firm numerical prediction for Sills in 2018 but I can tell you that falling just short of the Biletnikoff this year will be jet fuel in his tank come next season. I say Sills finally brings said award home, breaks Stedman Bailey’s towering single season TD mark and etches his place in WVU’s history books as the resident G.O.AT. out wide.
Jake Spavital acquits himself and coaches a record-breaking West Virginia offense
It’s no secret that Jake Spavital was probably the most divisive figure on Dana Holgorsen’s coaching staff this year. His return to Morgantown was as heralded last spring as it was derided at the conclusion of the season just two weeks ago. Not to say that criticism of his first year at the helm of the West Virginia air rad was undue. While Will Grier and co. finished the year 22nd in the country with a 34.5 PPG average along 459.9 YPG. No small potatoes.
However, fan expectations being what they are, a top-25 finish offensively is more or less status quo for this program. In addition, Spavital was called out several times this year for uneven play-calling and for milking the big play far too often while not focusing on simply moving the sticks and maintaining control of the clock. Even the musket’s own Matt Kirchner wrote this back in June which has proven somewhat prophetic now months down the road.
For Spav to win back the whole of Mountaineer nation in 2018, two things need to happen:
1) Play-calling needs to show more versatility. The most vocal critics will point to the Oklahoma and Utah games as examples of the coaching staff not adapting well to changing personnel and playing to their strengths. Different packages are great as long as they can be run effectively and it’s on Spav and the offensive staff to make that a reality.
2) The running game needs improvement. Justin Crawford was quietly exceptional the last two years posting dual 1,000 campaigns but in his absence, it will presumably be Kennedy McCoy, Martell Pettaway and Alec Sinkfield carrying the ball in this offense and none of them have any experience as a RB #1. The line, at this times year, got beaten at the point of contact and that was never more apparent than when we called runs, especially to the inside. For Spav and Joe Wickline, the challenge will be to counter a formidable passing attack with a running game that can average more than 4.2 YPC.
Do these two things and continue to dial up a couple big plays where Grier drops an in-stride bomb to Sills or Jennings and Jake Spavital may start making good on all the hype he generated when he left California for Morgantown.
David Long, Lamonte McDougle and Kenny Robinson will all be defensive All-Americans
This one may not be quite a stretch, as all three players have firmly cemented themselves in the good graces of Mountaineer nation. However, by the end of 2018, these three will be the reason that Tony Gibson’s guys have a bounce back year and, individually, will be household names at season’s end.
Long, simply put, is one of the best linebackers in the country. Despite only showing up in nine contests this year, he still posted 55 tackles and 3.5 sacks. Slightly diminutive at 5’11”, Long looks more and more like former Oklahoma standout Eric Striker on a daily basis. With an incredibly experienced defensive front returning in 2018, the Cincinnati native figures to have an absolutely incredible season that will no doubt generate looks from the NFL.
On the flip-side, fellow freshmen McDougle and Robinson did more than just earn their stripes in 2017. Robinson was an unheralded, unearthed diamond in the rough who did nothing but make plays in the secondary. The coaches loved his potential during the summer and it’s easy to see why. McDougle, coming from NFL bloodlines, may have had a little more star power entering the season but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how disruptive the Florida native was at the nose position and many battles he won down in the trenches based on his strength and his center of gravity.
What you have, in essence, are three certified playmakers at each level of the defense. With apologies to the other returning players around them, it really is these three who will anchor and set the tone for Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 in 2018 and, honestly, it couldn’t have come at a better time. With the offense set to move the ball at a biblical rate next season, the defense figures to see not only just as many snaps per game but also just as much time, if not more, on the field defending opposing drives.
It’ll be hard going next season for the DAWGS and a necessary opportunity for them to prove that this defense, and its leader, deserve to remain a fixture in Morgantown. Giving up 445 YPG as they did in 2017, simply put, ain’t cuttin’ it. Fortunately for both Gibson and the rest of the team, its base ingredients figure to yield something bold and exciting, something the rest of the nation will take note of. These three aren’t just good players by WVU’s standards, they’re stalwarts who deserve recognition on the national stage.
Jovani Haskins will catch at least 400+ yards from the tight end position
Yeah, I said it. A tight end in a Jake Spavital offense will haul in more than 400 yards next season. It feels crazy just typing it, but I think 2018 will be a monumental step forward for this offense and Haskins will be a big reason why.
Consider that since Dana Holgorsen took over the program, the tight end position has been relegated to either a blocker lined up next to the tackle or a blocker lined up in the backfield, honorarily referred to as a “H back”. Tyler Urban, Cody Clay, Trevon Wesco, while all good football players and great blockers, didn’t have the athletic ability to warrant looks in the air raid passing scheme. Enter Jovani Haskins.
Haskins, a one-time target of West Virginia coming out of New Jersey, originally picked Miami over the Mountaineers and the Hokies. At 6’4”, 240, Haskins not only possesses prototypical size but is also a considerable athlete. He’s far more Antonio Gates than Cody Clay and his arrival this past Summer was reason for huge excitement in around the program.
What Haskins provides, which up to this point was not available to Dana and co., is the ability to line up an athletic tight end at various points across the line to create further match up problems for opposing defenses. Imagine putting another 30-odd pounds on Gary Jennings and being able to motion him all over the field and then, conversely, imagine being an opposing cornerback having to cover him on a 10 yard slant route across the middle. That’s what Haskins brings to the table.
Between proven weapons like Sills, Jennings and Simms and heralded transfers in T.J. Simmons and Haskins, Will Grier will basically be in arcade mode with regard to his options in the passing game. A big athletic tight end adds an enviable dimension to any offense (look up Mark Andrews highlights if you don’t believe me) and one that defensive game plans have a hard time accounting for, especially when you have every type of receiver lined up near and around them.
With a full offseason to prep and build rapport with Will Grier, Jovani Haskins should be the x-factor in 2018 for an offense that already will have no trouble scoring points. Less a rare fixture on the goal line, look for the Miami transfer to be a consistent threat at different angles across the field and give Jake Spavital reason to sleep a little easier at night.
Will Grier will win the Maxwell Award, but probably not the Heisman
This one sucks and I hate to think it will come to fruition. The hard truth is, however, West Virginia will have to win 12 games next season and, likely, the Big 12 for Grier to garner any real, genuine Heisman consideration.
We’re all to familiar with the story, by now: West Virginia isn’t a blue blood, they don’t have the tv market or the viewership, they don’t win enough big games, they simply don’t have the history behind them like an Alabama, a Michigan, an Ohio State, (insert blue blood du jour here__________ ), etc. As tiresome and as superfluous as this whole story has become, it doesn’t change the fact that the ruling powers who cast votes for the most coveted trophy in the game listen to all of this.
Grier just came off a phenomenal season where, despite missing nearly three full games, was able to post 3,490 yards and 34 TD’s to only 12 interceptions. Scariest of all, his ceiling is still more than an arm’s length away and he’ll have all of 2018 to touch it. Given the ammunition at his disposal and the knowledge he’ll have accumulated come September 1st, Will Grier will be in prime position to shatter almost every passing record West Virginia has. To say that the Charlotte, NC native will be an award darling come December 2018, would be like calling West Virginia’s topography hilly.
The Maxwell award isn’t a perfect indicator of who will win the Heisman but it’s not far off. Since 2010, 5 out of 8 Maxwell award recipients went on to win the Heisman. The trouble with the Heisman is that it’s usually the best player on the best team, not necessarily the best player in a vacuum; that’s more or less the function the Maxwell serves. Baker Mayfield was certainly an exception to the rule this year but given that Oklahoma is a blue blood and was already playoff-bound, it’s really not that perplexing that he accumulated the hardware he did.
Grier could very well go on to have a 2018 where he eclipses 4,500 yards, 40 TD’s and throws better than 65%. He could very well lead West Virginia to a 10+ win finish and lead West Virginia into Dallas for the Big 12 title If he does manage to accomplish all of the above, the odds that he goes home with the award for College Football’s Outstanding Player are better than good. Fail to win a conference title and (in doing so) fall short of a playoff bid, and the odds that a Heisman is even in the realm of possibility are slim to none.
That’s just the world we inhabit.
Perhaps I’m being a bit pessimistic because I’ve seen how things have played out in the past and am more than acutely aware of the politicking that occurs up at the level where these awards are decided on. Perhaps I’m more than sour about West Virginia’s past missteps and how guarded optimism keeps you from [completely] breaking your heart on any given Saturday. Grier’s path in the Big 12 next year is virtually clear as both Baker Mayfield and Mason Rudolph will be working on Sundays. Elsewhere, Kelly Bryant of Clemson, Ryan Finley of NC State and Trace McSorley of Penn State all figure to be likely candidates to make runs at post-season awards. Nothing is guaranteed and everything is equal opportunity.
The one thing that I can tell you is that Will Grier has enough star power heading into next season to find himself squarely in the discussion of who’s-who in college football and will continue to be as long as he plays his game and the other 20 players on the field for West Virginia can satisfactorily do their jobs. While I do see Will Grier grabbing some sort of acclaim in the 2018 post-season, I, for reasons that I’ve already mentioned, just can’t quite envision the biggest honor in the land coming back to Morgantown.
How I would love to be proven wrong.