Some folks were really starting to have doubts about whether or not West Virginia could succeed in the Big 12, that maybe the program was in over their heads. Last season dispelled much of that doubt, and Dana Holgorsen saved his job by winning 10 games, and finished 7-2 in conference play. There is no reason to think that a replay of last season could not be in store, and it could even get a little bit better if the right chips fall.
What To Be Excited About: Offense
Will Grier transferred over from Florida to be able to start this season with the departure of Skyler Howard, and it could not have worked out more perfectly. Grier was a star in the WVU spring game, and his potential in this offense is through the roof. Any kind of negativity with Grier was left behind at Florida, and the clean break and reboot will work wonders for him, so expect big things from the passing game with Grier at the trigger.
Justin Crawford was a major find last fall as a junior, and returns for his senior season at RB after finishing with 1184 yards rushing and four scores. He could blow up even bigger this fall, as he has massive home run potential after averaging 7.26 yards per carry last season. Sophomore Kennedy McCoy also adds some big play ability after averaging 6.47 yards per carry in relief duty in 2016. Martell Pettaway also returns, and averaged well over five yards per carry as well.
Ka'Raun White gives WVU something to be excited about in the receiving corps, despite the loss of the top two receivers from last season. White still managed to catch 48 passes as the third leading receiver from the team last fall. Jovon Durante also moves up the depth chart, and caught 35 passes last fall. Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms also return. The Mountaineers added some depth via the JC routes as well at WR, with Dominique Maiden (Riverside CC) and David Sills V, (El Camino College), who has already played at WVU before.
Kyle Bosch will return at LG, while Yodny Cajuste will return at LT after losing the season in 2016 to an opening game knee injury. Marcell Lazard is in the hunt for a job at Tackle as well. Grant Lingafelter will return to start at RG, while sophomore Matt Jones and JC transfer Kelby Wickline will battle it out at center, but more on that later.
What To Be Concerned About: Offense
Even though there is more than enough talent coming back and entering the fray at WR, the Mountaineers still do lose some serious talent with the losses of Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts. That was a combined 106 receptions in productivity lost, and that is a ton to ask from a relatively inexperienced, but talented crop coming back.
The Mountaineers also have a couple of considerable losses on the line as well, as All-American Center Tyler Orlosky has moved on, as has OG/OT Adam Pankey, who was a massive presence on the left side at both positions. Finding immediate replacements to gel with the returning starters will be paramount to getting this offense running early in the season.
The PK game could use some help as well, as Mike Molina connected on just 15/22 FGs last fall.
What To Be Excited About: Defense
The defense as a whole made major improvements last fall, and allowed just 24 points per game in a league that could be scoring happy at times. That is a huge development for the Mountaineers to be carried on into the 2017 season.
The Mountaineers best look in the front seven will be at ILB, where both Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long return. Benton finished second on the team with 80 tackles last fall, while Long returns after recording 65 tackles and 4.5 TFLs.
Dravon Askew-Henry will return after missing last season at FS. He was the starter in 2015, and was injured during the preseason last fall. Kyzir White returns at the SPUR position, and will help to lead a decimated secondary into the new season. Toyous Avery will be back at the BANDIT position after collecting four PBUs last fall. Look for early enrollee Derek Pitts to get some looks at Safety as well after being named the best safety in West Virginia High Schools last fall.
Bill Kinney returns at Punter after averaging over 41 yards per boot last fall, and they may need him now more than ever to give this mostly new defensive unit a break from time to time.
What To Be Concerned About: Defense
There is a ton to be worried about on defense. There may be enough talent to go around, but there are some major holes to be filled on this side of the football.
The entire defensive line needs to be replaced, for starters. Adam Shuler II got plenty of playing time last season, and fills in at one spot, while Reese Donahue got a ton of playing time as a freshman last season. Jon Lewis figurs in at some point, while Jaleel Fields looks to have an edge on the NT job after spring ball. He sustained a knee injury before ever playing a game last fall. Xavier Pegues is figuring his way in as well after missing all of last season with an injury.
Both OLBs need to be replaced as well. Look for Xavier Preston to win the SAM job, Brendan Ferns looks to come back from injury to claim a spot on the other side. Hodari Christian and Adam Hensley are in the mix for depth as well.
Three starting spots from the end of last season were unfilled heading into spring ball, and even though some good answers were found as we head into the Summer, there are still plenty of questions, especially at CB. Rasul Douglas led the nation in picks last fall with eight, and is gone, Elijah Battle is the only returning CB on the roster with any starting experience, and he has all of three starts under his belt.
9/3 Virginia Tech at Landover, Md, 9/9 East Carolina, 9/16 Delaware State, 9/23 at Kansas, 10/7 at TCU, 10/14 Texas Tech, 10/21 at Baylor, 10/28 Oklahoma State, 11/4 Iowa State, 11/11 at Kansas State, 11/18 Texas, 11/25 at Oklahoma
Even with some of the gaping holes on defense, West Virginia should have enough on hand on offense to keep the ball rolling in the right direction in 2017. They are definitely a top three team in the Big 12, and with a couple of decent ball bounces, they could have a shot to steal the conference title if they really get it together and get into a rhythm early. The addition of Grier at QB is huge, and there is enough JC talent coming in to fill some holes immediately. The schedule is easy enough early on to get a good head of steam running before hitting the meat of the schedule late. I like the Mountaineers' chances of really making some noise in this conference, especially if they find the answers they need on defense early.