Anybody who watched the 2021 West Virginia Mountaineers with even a passing interest knows the team had more than its share of shortcomings. The good news here is that with spring football in the horizon those shortcomings transform into opportunities. Let's take a look at some of the lowest hanging fruit and talk about how realistic it is that we get better at those things over the next six months. For the sake of brevity we'll limit it to one for each phase.
THE VERTICAL PASSING
Neal Brown's teams have featured three of our program's four worst offenses in the Big 12 era, and as such this section could’ve focused on any number of things that need to be improved upon. The offensive line struggled to keep pass rushers away from Jarret Doege which was exacerbated by his inability to scramble and buy his own time which limited our ability to push the ball down the field which allowed teams to stack the box against our running game and limited our overall ceiling as an offense. My first thought here was to examine our inability (perhaps unwillingness?) to consistently run the football, but with Graham Harrell's hiring ushering in the Second Age of the HarrRaid in Morgantown I thought it would be more interesting to look at potential gains through the air, and in particular the vertical passing game.
The Mountaineer passing game was a bit of smoke and mirrors in 2021. The totals and per-game averages across the traditional counting stats were mostly decent, but peeling back a layer or two reveals an extremely feast-or-famine game log as well as subpar explosiveness numbers. I'm not telling anybody anything they don't know here, but Doege struggled with his accuracy on anything more than 10 yards downfield and his immobility meant that there was very little of the outside-the-box playmaking that can lead to big plays.
So how likely are we to see improvement? It's hard to say, but one thing we can be fairly sure about is that based on Harrell's track record it won't be for lack of trying. Harrell's offenses at USC and North Texas averaged 41.3 and 36.8 passes per game, respectively, and as I mentioned in my initial look at Harrell, a significant percentage of those throws travelled 10 or more yards in the air, resulting in 10+ and 20+ yard passing play outputs that much more closely resemble Dana Holgorsen's offenses here than anything we've seen so far under Neal Brown. We are definitely going to look to push the ball down the field, and I expect to see an especially big uptick in the number of targets in that 10-20 yard range.
The other pieces to that puzzle though are, well, the pieces to the puzzle. Who's the quarterback, who's the quarterback throwing to, and how are those guys lining up? Even considering those questions though I'm confident in the passing game's potential because of Harrell's stated philosophy - identify the 5-6 things our guys can do well and work to get really good at them. Having a clearly defined identity like that helps unlock talent by allowing players to stop thinking and start playing. And to that end, we do have some pretty intriguing options.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton is a known entity with a similar physical profile to USC's Drake London, who Harrell moved all over the formation and developed into a likely first round draft pick. I'm even more excited about Kaden Prather, who's less established but is ultra-talented and has that same physical profile. How do we use those two together? Does Sam James reestablish himself as the deep threat he was as a freshman and clear the way for Reese Smith to build on the effectiveness he flashed in the slot last year? And what does Harrell make of the variety in the SUV room? There are a ton of possibilities, and I have to think that from all that we'll be able to hone in a handful of concepts that our guys can be successful with.
THE TAKEAWAY GENERATION
Neal Brown's defenses have forced fewer than 1.3 turnovers per game in each of his first three seasons here; Dana Holgorsen's forced fewer than 1.5 per game just twice in eight seasons. There’s a certain amount of luck that goes into generating takeaways - you have to fall on the fumbles you force and catch the passes you’re in position to intercept. However, there’s also an extent to which teams create that luck by putting themselves in advantageous situations, and when you look at our PBU and forced fumble numbers from last year it suggests that we didn't do nearly a good enough job with that.
Looking ahead to 2022, there are no guarantees of a turnaround. I'm a paid subscriber to the idea that impact players make impact plays, and with the transfer portal again claiming multiple starters from the second level of the defense it's hard to pencil anybody in as our primary playmakers there. However, we're also not without cause for optimism, and in my opinion that starts up front.
If a good defensive line can mitigate issues on the back end, a dominant one can almost erase them completely. We have our top 6 guys back from a defensive front that was the strength of the team a year ago, plus a pretty solid transfer and a couple of underclassmen who all the coaches seem high on. If everybody's healthy there's a very good chance this is a top three unit in the conference, which means plenty of TFLs, plenty of sacks, and plenty of situations where an opposing quarterback might feel the need to force something.
Moving back to linebacker, losing Josh Chandler-Semedo may lower our floor at the position but replacing him with Lee Kpogba undoubtedly raises our ceiling. Kpogba is ultra-competitive and athletic and should bring back some of the pop we missed last year without Tony Fields. I imagine we'll look to pair him with Lance Dixon, who was quietly our best defensive player in the bowl game. If we can consistently get that version of Dixon and Kpogba reaches his potential it would give us our most explosive linebacker tandem in years, and might allow us to step into some of those throwing windows that JCS and Exree Loe were unable to close down last year.
The wildcard is the secondary. Jackie Matthews and Daryl Porter are both good players and losing them prematurely undoubtedly hurts. However, we also saw flashes from a couple of guys who will be back. Charles Woods created some takeaways and was one of our best defensive players once he started playing - what does he look like as a full-time starter? Ditto for Saint McLeod - can he continue his current arc and go full Tykee in year 2? Beyond that we'll be looking at a handful of newcomers, but it's worth noting that DC Lesley has already spent a significant amount of time talking about how long and athletic that group is. Again, there's no guarantees that we transform into a turnover machine but I think there are some sneaky good supporting pieces in place if the d-line can carry us.
THE KICKOFF SHENANIGANS
With the exception of Casey Legg's place kicking, every aspect of our special teams graded out well below average this year. However, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything that was a bigger dumpster fire than the kickoff team. The problems were plainly obvious to anyone with a set of eyes - delay of game penalties (yes it's a thing and yes we did it more than once), kicks out of bounds (our 5 ranked 3rd nationally), big returns (we were one of only three teams to allow 4 50+ yarders), and worst of all, the 40 yard line-surrendering pooch kicks that we seemed to turn to following any of the aforementioned miscues. Toss in the nation's 8th lowest touchback percentage and all told our Mountaineers ranked 129th out of 130 in FootballOutsiders kickoff efficiency metric and had one of the worst average starting field positions in America.
I actually feel confident about significant improvement here, not only because it would be very hard for us to be any worse, but also because of the addition of Florida State grad transfer Parker Grothaus and his 55% career touchback percentage. Teams can't return kicks that go through the endzone. Unfortunately though, kicking the ball is only half the battle, and when you consider that we actually ranked 11th nationally in that FO kickoff efficiency metric in 2020 with the same kickers, the same coordinator, and an even lower percentage of touchbacks, it suggests to me that the lion's share of the blame for 2021's regression (as well as much of the onus for sustainable improvement in 2022) lies with the dudes actually covering the kicks. Guys not maintaining lane discipline, guys missing tackles, that sort of thing. This is where three years of Neal Brown's recruiting (and possibly some additional attention from ol HCNB now that he's stepping back as OC?) hopefully starts to bear some fruit. Better players on the two-deep means better players on special teams, and the goal should be that some of these guys who received praise as redshirts this year, as well as some of the highly touted incoming freshmen, will start cycling through and making plays for us in the third phase.
It'd be naive to predict that we're going to be a top 15 unit again but I think I'd be disappointed if we don't get back to somewhere around average - let's say between 40 and 50% touchbacks and an average starting field position inside our opponents' own 30.