I make a conscious effort to remain reasonably objective in most of the stuff that I write, even if my bias sometimes shines through. However, every now and then, on a nice sunny day, it's fun to head out to the garage, dust off the homercycle, throw on my old gold and blue-tinted goggles, and open up the throttle. This is probably one of those times.
A caveat before we begin - as far as our fan base is concerned, there should not be any expectations for our football team in 2019.
Now then, it is my opinion that preseason perceptions of our football team are incorrectly being based on the team that we’ve been for most of the last decade, as opposed to the team that we will potentially be this year. Despite my objections though, that's not unreasonable. Mountaineer Nation has spent much of the last decade watching a mostly pass-first football team. We were never a true Air Raid squad in the Mike Leach mold, but even so, we threw it more than we ran it in five of Dana's eight years on campus, and many times notably so. And that's just fine - we knew what we were getting into with Dana Holgorsen, and the "Throw It Up U" era was generally a pretty good time even if the results didn't always meet our expectations.
However, the two years that we really deviated from that MO (2015 and 2016) also happened to produce 18 wins, including just the sixth 10-win season in school history, despite the fact that we started a DIII walk-on running back at quarterback. We had some talented pass catchers and a solid defense during those years, but most of that success was driven by things that come naturally with running the football (and running it well) - we controlled the clock, which generally led to fewer opponent possessions, which led to fewer plays faced, fewer explosive plays allowed, and ultimately fewer points allowed. Forcing defenses to respect us on the ground was also crucial to our own success through the air, because it pulled defenses toward the line of scrimmage and allowed us to attack vertically and generate explosive plays in the passing game.
So what does that have to do with this year? Potentially a lot. Let's think about what we know about Neal Brown and our current situation.
First, we know that Real Deal Neal is a student of history. The months since his hiring have featured a gaggle of “Neal Brown impressed person X by being able to discuss obscure past football event Y” anecdotes, so I think we can safely assume that he’ll be aware of what happened here just a few years ago.
Second, we know that Neal is flexible. At his introductory presser he said his offense has a “get it done” philosophy - we’re going to spread people out and go fast, which aesthetically will make us look similar to our offenses under Dana, but we’re going to call whatever play, run or pass, that we think gives us the best chance to get the ball to playmakers in space. The fluctuation in Troy’s run/pass splits over the last several years lends credence to this idea and suggests that Neal is perfectly happy to adjust his playcalling based on the talent he has at his disposal.
Which means we have to ask ourselves the question - based on what we bring back, do we have a better chance to “get it done” by throwing it all over the place, or do we have a better chance if our offense looks more like it did during those two years with Skyler and the Boys?
You'd have to lean towards the latter, right?
Quarterbacks aside, the loss of Jennings, Sills, Simms, and Wesco left a 191 catch, 2968 yard, 31 touchdown-sized crater in our passing game. That's somewhere in the neighborhood of 75% of our production up and vanished, and though I think we have promise, we have to face the very real possibility that our passing game is [not good] this year. You simply can’t lose five NFL-caliber players and not expect at least some regression, especially when throwing the ball to those players were so central to our success. And that's why it’s perfectly understandable that people around the country think we’re going to take that step backwards - because the national perception of our team over the last two years was generally reduced to Will Grier and His Merry Men, and because losing all those guys would be hard for any team to bounce back from.
But what if everybody is thinking about things the wrong way? What if we realize that we can't replace those guys, so rather than trying to, we instead try to change who we are like we did during the Skyler era? And if we do that, then maybe instead of focusing on the fact that we lost an NFL quarterback and four NFL receivers we should be focusing on the fact that we return four fantastic running backs, five competent offensive linemen, and a potentially stingy defense.
I know it seems like forever ago, but think back to that 2016 team and how it was constructed - it was all of those same ingredients, right? And without being overly romantic about it, the talent level is comparable. Skyler Howard was one hell of a gamer, but you can't tell me that he was more gifted than Austin Kendall or Jack Allison, or that Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell were more effective than Pettaway, McKoy, Brown, and Sinkfield, or that our defense that year was definitely better than the unit we're rolling with in 2019. And we won 10 games by committing to an identity and winning in the margins. Why can't something similar be in the cards for this year?
Look gang, there's no doubt that HCNB has his work cut out for him in Year 1, but the optimist in me, the one cruising down those country roads wearing gold and blue goggles, can't help but feel like there's a path here that leads to us being a pain in the ass for pretty much everybody. Based on what we know about Real Deal Neal, I expect us to find it, and whether the results cooperate or not, that'll be good enough for me.