December 21-25 of 2017 was a great time to be a Mountaineer. Not to imply that there's ever really a bad time, but optimism around the football program was unnaturally high.
It started on December 14th with Will Grier announcing that he was returning for his senior season. This wasn't exactly a surprise, but was still welcome news considering that ingrained in every Mountaineer fan is a tendency to expect the worst. When David Sills followed suit on December 18th, all seemed right in the world.
The trifecta was completed on December 20th - the first day of the newly created Early Signing Period. We received 19 letters of intent and locked down arguably the best recruiting class in school history. HYPE TRAIN, FULL STEAM AHEAD! NEXT STOP: THE 2018 BIG 12 CHAMPIONSHIP!!
It was easy to get caught up. I obviously did. But then the stupid bowl game happened and provided a welcome reality check for those of us who were already looking at hotel prices in Dallas for the first week of December 2018. I still think next year is "The Year", but that doesn't mean we're without our share of unknowns. Here are some things to keep an eye on as we head into the Spring.
Does a year older mean a year better?
A lot of the 2018 hype seems to be built around the fact that we're getting a lot of people back from a team that was pretty damn good in 2017. And rightfully so - Will Grier returns as a Heisman frontrunner, we return 3 of his top 4 receivers (including a Biletnikoff finalist), 2 of our top 3 running backs (and I've been arguing for McKoy over Crawford for months), 5 of our top 7 offensive lineman. 5 of our top 6 defensive lineman, 2 of our top 3 linebackers, a starting corner, and 2 of our 3 starting safeties. We could be very good next year, BUT, as the Utah game reminded us, we're not yet. We still have a lot of work to do if we're going to reach our ceiling, which in my mind makes personnel development a top priority.
Think about the difference between a guy like Justin Arndt, who got better every year and built himself into a good player, and a guy like Xavier Preston, who was always tipped for his potential but was basically the same guy when he left as he was when he got here. This is where I think being humbled in the bowl game may actually pay off down the road - it should leave a bad taste in our mouths heading into the offseason, which, if leveraged correctly, should provide all the motivation our guys need to dive headfirst into a productive Spring. And we need a productive Spring.
And not just the players. Jake Spavital needs to do some soul searching, as well. Our offense looked fantastic this year when we had one of the best quarterbacks in the country, but Chugs pants-pooping or not, 150 yards in the bowl game with 4 weeks to prepare is inexcusable. Will he be willing to adapt if what he wants to do isn’t working? Is he willing to view running the ball as something other than a thing to do to take a break from going deep? And how long of a leash is Dana willing to give him if things don’t change for the better?
Can we find another cornerback (or two)?
Considering our 2017 stuggles and continued membership in the pass-happy Big 12, this question should continue to find it's way to the forefront of most of our offseason conversations.
The good news here is, we might already have one. Hakeem Bailey looked like he was starting to figure things out in November, and historically our corners have made big leaps between years 1 and 2 with Tony Gibson (see Worley, Daryl and Douglas, Rasul). If Bailey can mirror that type of development then I think we can feel OK about at least one side of the field.
The bad news, though, is that outside of him, we have exactly 0 guys that have proven themselves worthy of any kind of confidence. We need to find at least 1, and ideally 2 or 3 more guys that can make the leap to serviceable. The question is, who?
Are those guys already on the roster? Jake Long and Sean Mahone both fit the physical bill for a Tony Gibson cornerback; perhaps one of them takes the initiative? The Adams brothers have been on campus for a few years but have yet to record a tackle between them; could one of them come out of nowhere and surprise everyone? Maybe Fontez Davis or Kevin Williams make a Gibson leap? Maybe we even give a guys like Derrik Pitts and Exree Loe a shot to lock down a spot? In a perfect world you'd think at least one of those scenarios would come good, but would I actually want to bet my life on any of them? Negative.
The more likely solution may be found in guys who are on their way here as part of the 2018 recruiting class. Joshua Norwood and Keith Washington are a pair of JUCOs that were both very highly regarded coming out of high school, and both have the pedigree to provide an immediate impact on the outside. The 5'10 195 Norwood played in 11 games as a true freshmen at Ohio State before a JUCO All-American campaign at Last Chance U in 2017, while the 6'2 Washington starred at Copiah-Lincoln CC after playing 9 games as a freshmen at Michigan. I feel comfortable saying that from a talent standpoint the opportunity is theirs for the taking, but there's no guarantees that either of them will be able to pick up the scheme quickly enough to help us as much as we might need them to this year.
Who’s our fourth receiver?
We had a historically productive group of receivers in 2017, with Gary Jennings, Ka'Raun White, David Sills and Marcus Simms combining for 253 catches, 3743 yards, and 36 touchdowns. However, outside of that group only Kennedy McKoy got into double-digit receptions (with 10), and nobody (including McKoy) averaged more than 1 reception per game. I don't think that's sustainable in the long-run. A quarterback is always going to have his go-to guys, but we need a couple of the younger generation to step up and give Will the confidence to spread it around some more. Guys like Reggie Roberson, Dominique Maiden, and TJ Simmons, and possibly even incoming freshmen Dillon Spalding, Bryce Wheaton, and Sam James, are going to get opportunities in 2018, and we need them to be ready to step up and take them.
Who steps in at guard?
We have the good fortune of returning two high-level tackles and a center in Matt Jones who acquitted himself very well in his first year as a starter, but we're graduating a multi-year starter and multi-year contributor at guard in Kyle Bosch and Grant Lingafelter. Lingafelter's contribution shouldn't be overly hard to replicate, but Bosch was our tone-setter. He was a leader, the guy who gave the group their edge, and replacing that kind of presence isn't always as easy as plug-and-play.
Fortunately, we have literally a ton of poundage to throw at the problem. JUCO products Kelby Wickline and Isaiah Hardy should be in the mix, as should Tennessee transfer Ray Raulerson. A trio of rising RS sophomores, Josh Sills, Chase Behrndt and Jacob Buccigrossi, should get a look, as well. All of these guys saw playing time in 2017, but none of them besides Sills really distinguished themselves when given an opportunity. It also has to be said that almost all of them were part of the group that failed to stop Utah mauling Chugs in the bowl game. Utah's defensive line may have featured as many as 4 NFL players, but that's not much different than what we should expect to see in conference play next year, so simply showing up for 2018 won't cut it.
I'm confident that we can find a couple of guys from that group who can do the job technically, but the bigger problem is finding someone who can replace some of the nasty we're losing with Bosch. I suspect whoever can bring that 'tude with the most consistency will have a leg up on the competition, but for now the race looks wide open.
Who steps up at linebacker?
The second level of our 3-3-5 returns 2 of its 3 starters from a year ago, but loses a stalwart in two-year starter Al-Rasheed Benton. I was a bit critical of Benton in my various WVU-related text chains (I thought he "guessed" his way out of position at times), but after leading the team in tackles as a senior there's no denying that he's leaving some big shoes to fill.
The good news here is that David Long will be back, and David Long is the truth. Long earned ProFootballFocus 2nd team All-American honors despite missing the first 4 games of the season, and rumor has it that he may slide into the middle from his spot on the weak side next year, which in theory means he should be even more involved.
Beyond that, Bridgeport native Dylan Tonkery burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman and performed admirably on the strong side, and should only continue to improve as he spends more time in our S&C program. The question that we need to answer though, is who's going to be that third guy? We have several options to look at here, but all of them remain unproven.
Starting with Tonkery's mates from the class of 2016, you have to think that Brendan Ferns will have every chance to claim the lion's share of the time as his own. Ferns was very highly regarded out of high school but has unfortunately had consecutive seasons derailed by injury. Still, he's been in the program for a couple of years now and looked pretty good before getting hurt last year; will he be able to return to form and lock that spot down?
Other 2016 classmates include Adam Hensley, Logan Thimons, and Zach Sandwisch. All three saw playing time in 2017, but the majority of it was on special teams, and of the three, only Hensley was able to record a tackle. We don't have much evidence to suggest any of them are ready to be full-time starters next year; will one of them be able to take their opportunity and run with it?
The final two options are most likely Quondarius Qualls, who played the most 2017 snaps of any returnee outside of Long and Tonkery, and JUCO transfer Charlie Benton. Qualls flashed some good athleticism this year, but more often than not looked lost in our scheme. As for Benton, I really like the way plays (very long, very athletic, very aggressive) and think he definitely has the talent to help right away, but there's no guarantees that he won't be in the same place next year that Quondarius was last year.
Am I confident that at least one of those six will be ready step in and play at a reasonably high level? Sure. But it's easy to be confident in January.
Can our specialists take a collective step forward?
On the surface, there's no excuse for us being anything worse than average in the third phase next year. After all, we return our kicker, our top 2 punters from last year, and appear to have retained the services of an Australian punter named Angus Davies. And as my buddy Andy put it, "You can't be named Angus Davies and not hit bombs that die inside the 5." So we got that going for us, which is nice.
What would be reeeeaaaally nice though is if the entire group could take a nice, big step forward from average to good. I'm confident in Evan Staley out to about 40 yards, and in a perfect world another spring in the weight room will add at least 5 yards to that, but we need to see some steady progression from our punters. Field position frequently gets lost in the conversation, but we see time and again the impact that it can have on the outcome of a game and more often than not it felt like we were on the losing side of that battle in 2017. It'd be great if we could flip that script. God knows that if we're going to have the kind of season we want to next year our special teams are going to have to come up big at least a couple of times.
What kind of an impact can we expect from our newcomers?
We've already discussed guys like Josh Norwood and Keith Washington who will walk onto campus with some serious expectations on their shoulders, and I think Charlie Benton has a chance to really surprise some people, but there are a few others that I think are worth mentioning, as well. I'd be remiss if I didn't start with Mr. Kwantel Raines.
Raines is a rangy 6'3 215 lb safety from Aliquippa who pretty much everybody has been drooling about for the better part of a year. And really, it does look like a match made in heaven. Raines excelled in a variety of defensive positions at the high school level, and that size and versatility is exactly what you need to succeed at the Spur position that Kyzir White's vacating. I don't see him having much of an issue adjusting physically, so if he's able to pick up the scheme then I think he'll challenge for the starting job right away.
Dante Stills is another highly-rated incoming freshman who figures to get an early look, though he probably has a longer road to playing time than Kwantel simply because of how crowded the depth chart is in front of him (man it feels good to be able to say that). However, talent-wise he may be as good as we have, so if he comes in ready to go physically I expect him to move up the depth chart quickly. I don’t think he’ll crack the starting group as a freshman, but I definitely don’t see him redshirting either.
A final newbie that I’m expecting big things from is a transfer. West Virginia historically doesn’t utilize a tight end, but I think that Jovani Haskins has a real opportunity to buck that trend and turn into a weapon for us. He was a near unanimous selection among coaches as the scout team guy most likely to burst onto the scene in 2018, and the vacuum created by Ka’Raun White’s graduation calls for somebody who can provide a physical presence in the passing game. At 6’4 245, Haskins can definitely fill that void, and I’m hoping that we go out of our way to get him involved next year.
Scale of 1 to 10, how excited am I for next year?
17. 17 out of 10. I’ve spent 2500 words talking about potential problems, but you know what isn’t among them? Quarterback. As long as we have Will Grier, the sky’s the limit. This is about to be a fun 12 months. LET’S GOOOOO!