To say 2021 has been a disappointment would be lying about the word disappointment. When Neal Brown was hired on January 4, 2019, the hire was lauded by nearly everyone. It was the perfect hire for the perfect school and once things got going, this would be looked back as the next stepping stone for West Virginia.
Now 33 months later, we are discussing why the team is 2-4 and just can’t get out of its own way, especially when other coaches who were hired in the same period are doing just fine. There are extenuating circumstances that you can point to, but there are always extenuating circumstances everywhere. Someone got hurt, someone transferred, someone regressed in development, a new recruit didn’t pan out, it happens everywhere so it can’t be used as a single example. Many want to point to the COVID-19 global pandemic that is still affecting daily life today, a year and a half later, but everyone in the country dealt with it. The fact is, something is amiss. But what exactly?
More than anything else at West Virginia, players have to be developed. West Virginia is never going to have a top ten recruiting class. They will likely never have a top-15 recruiting class. A top-20 class would be an all-time great class and that may be pushing our luck. Player development is where we win. We have to take those kids who were almost four-stars and turn them into high four stars. We have to take those kids who were four-stars and turn them in All-Americans. And we have to take those kids who were three-stars because the recruiting services didn’t see them enough and hit on the “diamonds in the rough”.
Player development hasn’t happened under Neal Brown. How many players can you say, with a straight face, are better than they were in 2019? Are Sam James, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Winston Wright better than they were two years ago when they started as freshmen? Sam James, who caught 69 passes in 2019, is on pace for 44. He has two 100-yard games in his career. Winston Wright is a better kick returner but for all of his speed averages 11 yards per catch.
The most damning is the quarterback position and we can’t talk about this season without talking about just how poor the quarterback play as been. Jarret Doege isn’t the long term future of West Virginia but more importantly, is he the short term future? I’d argue no. If anything, Doege has regressed from the player we saw in 2019. Doege has now played in 39 collegiate games. When we talk about his mistakes, we are talking about fundamental mistakes. We are talking about plays we would be mad if a freshman made them, but it isn’t a freshman making them, its a fifth year senior.
What about the backups. Many argue that Greene had his development cut down because of COVID and that is true. But we also hear that you just aren’t comfortable, or willing, or [insert reason here] to give the reigns to Greene. What does that say that you brought in a quarterback and two years in your system, he can’t handle it?
Player development needs to improve for West Virginia to make serious strides.
To actually give Jarret Doege a bit of a vote of confidence, he isn’t exactly afforded the most amount of time or exactly been an iron curtain for the quarterback. In fact, according to the ProFootballFocus grades, the offensive line consistently grades out as the worst on the team on a week-to-week basis. And its getting worse. Yes, they are young. But in 2019 you had Chase Behrndt (RS-Jr), Josh Sills (RS-Jr), Kelby Wickline (RS-Sr), Michael Brown (RS-Jr) and Colton McKivitz (RS-Sr) available as your starters. You also had a ton of freshman and redshirt freshmen who have now been in your program from three years and we are still shuffling a line.
And poor Leddie Brown. The running back, who most think has the potential to be the best running back in the Big 12 and one of the best in the country, is likely to finish his career with exactly one season over 1,000 yards and that season was 1,010. The offensive line was extremely bad in 2019. Remember all of us whining about how we had no running game? Then in 2020 we had a running game (kinda) and now, we have no running game....again?! That fact is the offensive line should be better by now. Maybe it will be better in the future but it should be better by now. The offensive line has to improve and if it can’t or doesn’t, the men coaching it need to be looked at.
The real chicken and the egg scenario on this team. Is the offensive scheme bad or is it held back by a poor offensive line/bad quarterback play/poor overall talent? There is no doubt that the quarterback and the offensive line limit this scheme but this offensive scheme, in a conference that is known for scoring points, has scored 30 points exactly four times against Power 5 opponents. Only one of those four is against Kansas (meaning they didn’t score 30 the other time they played Kansas!).
One thing our previous head coaches did well was scheme enough to put their playmakers in good position to make plays. And not just former coach Holgorsen, but even Stewart (at times) and Rodriguez. Don’t believe me? 2010, we had Noel Devine and Tavon Austin. Devine led the team in rushing while Austin led the team in receiving. WE gave the ball to Devine and got the ball to Tavon. What does this scheme do? It throws slants behind receivers, can’t or doesn’t throw deep and runs one-back schemes with no fullbacks and gains no yards. It runs read-option plays with an immobile quarterback and then gives its mobile quarterback a completely different playbook. We can’t, won’t or don’t scheme guys open and continue to try to win games by beating the other team with a pebble while they reach for their pistols.
This bye week is the time that Brown and his staff need to reflect internally and decide how they are going to fix this program. West Virginia deserves better. It deserves a winner. Neal Brown has done a lot of good but a bad year now will absolutely derail any goodwill he may have had. I’m not asking for national championships but I do want to be relevant. I want to be ranked, have meaningful games at home, at night, against ranked opponents and enjoy the 13 games that West Virginia provides me.
The worst part of all of this is the apathy many fans currently feel. They aren’t angry. They aren’t mad. Worse, they aren’t even upset. They are resigned. They have accepted their fate. They are Tony Stark at the beginning of Avengers Endgame, having recorded their final goodbye to Pepper Potts, they are Woody and Buzz in Toy Story 3 staring down the incinerator, holding each others’ hand. Come next Saturday when West Virginia travels to TCU, the fans will be hoping for Captain Marvel to show up, for the three aliens to save us with the claw, because if they aren’t out there, able to save us, the fans won’t boo, they won’t scream, they won’t shed tears. They just won’t show up. You’ll see a half-empty Milan Puskar Stadium as fans choose to be elsewhere on their Saturdays. And that isn’t a sight anyone wants to see. It’s time to bring back West Virginia football.