2016 season preview: WVU

By Dillon Durst

2015 record: 8-5, 4-5 (Big 12)

Returning starters: 9 offense, 3 defense

West Virginia started last season 3-0, outscoring Georgia Southern, Liberty and Maryland, 130-23. Then, the Mountaineers dropped four straight to then-No. 15 Oklahoma (eventual Big 12 champs), then-No. 21 Oklahoma State, then-No. 2 Baylor and then-No. 5 TCU. Three of the four losses came on the road. But, West Virginia recovered, popping off four-straight wins over Texas Tech, Texas, Kansas and Iowa State. During the string of victories, the Mountaineers outscored opponents, 148-52. They suffered an embarrassing loss at Kansas State to end the regular season, but managed to beat Arizona State (6-7) in the Cactus Bowl, 43-42.

2016 projected starting lineup

Offense:

QB – Skyler Howard, Chris Chugunov or William Crest Jr.
RB – Rushel Shell, Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy
FB – Elijah Wellman, Michael Ferns, Alex Brooks
WR (X) – Shelton Gibson, Gary Jennings, Ricky Rogers
WR (Z) – Ka’Raun White, Jovon Durante, Marcus Simms
IR (Y) – Daikiel Shorts Jr., Devonte Mathis
TE – Stone Wolfley, Trevon Wesco
LT – Yodny Cajuste, Rob Dowdy
LG – Adam Pankey*, Grant Lingafelter
C – Tyler Orlosky, Jah’Shaun Seider
RG – Kyle Bosch or Tony Matteo
RT – Marcell Lazard, Colton McKivitz

Bold = returning starter
* = suspended for season opener

Senior Adam Pankey, a two-year starter, is suspended for the season opener against Mizzou after a DUI arrest on Aug. 14. Redshirt senior Tony Matteo, who’s played in 18 games and started two over the course of his career, will start in Pankey’s place at left guard.

The Mountaineers return a group of speedy, flashy receivers with big-play capabilities. Redshirt junior Shelton Gibson headlines the group, having hauled in 37 receptions last season for 887 yards and 9 touchdowns. He said this week he should’ve had over 1,500; he’s definitely capable. Daikiel Shorts (Sr.) is a reliable receiver on the inside, while Jovon Durante (Soph.) – if he can stay eligible and out of Dana Holgorsen’s doghouse – poses a serious downfield threat. Holgorsen and first-year receivers coach Tyron Carrier called sophomore Gary Jennings the team’s most dependable receiver, while Ka’Raun White (r-Jr.) has the size and physicality to live up to genetic expectations set by his record-setting brother, Kevin.

Rushel Shell (r-Sr.) is the clear-cut starter at running back, but Justin Crawford (Jr.), a JUCO-transfer, has been hyped up all offseason by the coaching staff. The speedy 6-foot, 200-pound back rushed for 1,610 yards and 16 touchdowns last year at Northwest Mississippi C.C., including 394 receiving yards. He was the No. 3-ranked JUCO back in the 2016 class.

Tyler Orlosky (r-Sr.), a 2015 All-Big 12 Second Team selection and two-year starter, will anchor the offensive line at center.

Skyler Howard (Sr.) returns at quarterback after passing for more than 3,000 yards last season, including 24 touchdowns to 14 interceptions. In the Mountaineers’ first three games of 2015, Howard passed for 916 yards and 9 touchdowns to just 1 interception. Give or take, those could be considered Heisman-caliber numbers – given the candidate and prior hype/expectations. But, in West Virginia’s four-consecutive losses at the hands of the Big 12’s upper echelon, Howard passed for 810 yards – the outlier being 289 against Baylor — and 7 touchdowns to 6 interceptions.

Kennedy McKoy, Marcus Simms and Steven Smothers are the true freshmen to be on the lookout for this season. Coaches have said McKoy will split time with Shell and Crawford at running back, while receivers Simms and Smothers have too much speed to keep off the field.

Bottom line: If the Mountaineers expect to contend for a Big 12 title this year, they NEED better play out of Howard against the conference’s upper tier. A team will only goes as far as its trigger-man takes it.

Defense (3-3-5):

DE – Noble Nwachukwu, Adam Shuler
NT – Darrien Howard, Alec Shriner
DE – Christian Brown, Jon Lewis
SAM – Justin Arndt, Xavier Preston*, Zach Sandwisch
MIKE – Al-Rasheed Benton, Hodari Christian, Logan Thimons
WILL – Sean Walters, David Long
SPUR – Marvin Gross Jr. or Kyzir White
FCB – Antonio Crawford, Nana Kyeremeh, Mike Daniels
FS – Jeremy Tyler, Toyous Avery
BS – Jarrod Harper
BCB – Rasul Douglas, Elijah Battle, Maurice Fleming

Bold = returning starter
* = suspended for season opener

West Virginia’s secondary took a hit when junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry, the team’s top returning tackler from last season, went down with a season-ending knee injury during fall camp. What’s more, promising freshman linebacker Brendan Ferns, a former 4-star recruit and the Mountaineers’ highest-rated prospect in their 2016 class, went down a few days later to a similar season-ending knee injury.

West Virginia loses its top 4 tackles – all linebackers – as well as versatile athlete and SPUR safety K.J. Dillon, along with cornerback Daryl Worley.

The DAWGS’ strength this year will most likely be along the defensive line. Noble Nwachukwu (r-Sr.), a 2016 Preseason All-Big 12 selection, is a two-year starter for the Mountaineers at defensive end, tallying 8.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2015. He will be their rock up front. Christian Brown, a 6-2, 305-pound redshirt senior, returns at the other defensive end spot after a 33-tackle, 4.5-tackle for loss 2015 campaign.

Three new starters take over at the strongside (SAM) middle (MIKE) and weakside (WILL) linebacker positions in third-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 scheme. Al-Rasheed Benton (r-Jr.) and Sean Walters (r-Sr.) are easily the most experienced, both having played in more than 26 games throughout their careers. Benton made one start last season against Liberty in Week 2, and finished the 2015 season with 21 tackles, including 4 tackles for loss. Redshirt senior Justin Arndt, who’s played all three linebacker positions throughout his career, reminds me way too much of former Mountaineer linebacker Wes Tonkery, who was undersized, but a tackling-machine nonetheless in 2014. Arndt, a 5-11, 215-pounder out of Martinsburg, W.Va., and Tonkery are the definition of a prototypical WVU football player, both being undersized, blue-collar, West Virginia-bred ‘backers. But, the bigger, more physical Xavier Preston (Jr.), who is suspended for the season opener, could take over starting duties in Week 2. The 6-2, 240-pound Preston has superstar potential, but has yet to fully harvest it. Marvin Gross (r-Jr.) could get the early nod at SPUR, a hybrid linebacker-safety position, but will more than likely give way to Kyzir White (Jr.), who’s been described as a flat-out stud. The 6-3, 221-pound White, brother of Kevin and Ka’Raun, was recruited out of Lackawanna C.C. in Pennsylvania specifically to play SPUR.

With Henry’s injury, senior Jeremy Tyler will get the nod at free safety. Tyler battled Henry for the starting free safety job prior to the start of the 2014 season, and has played in every game for the Mountaineers over the past two seasons. Redshirt senior Jarrod Harper will man the Bandit safety position, vacated by 1st-round NFL draft pick Karl Joseph. Harper, who’s played in 38 games with 9 starts, took over starting duties last season in Week 5 after Joseph went down with a season-ending knee injury. At cornerback, Rasul Douglas (r-Sr.), a rangy former JUCO-transfer, and Antonio Crawford, a graduate transfer from Miami (Fla.), are listed as the starters at the boundary and field cornerback positions, respectively. But, Maurice Fleming, another graduate transfer from Iowa, Nana Kyeremeh (r-Sr.), Elijah Battle (Jr.) and Mike Daniels (Jr.) will all play.

Bottom line: The Mountaineers boast a slew of veteran starters and depth players. If the unit can stay healthy, I look for it to improve as the season progresses, much like it did in 2014.

Special teams:

K: Mike Molina, Josh Lambert
P: Billy Kinney, Jonn Young
LS: Nick Meadows, RC Brunstetter
H: Billy Kinney, Jonn Young
KO: Mike Molina, Billy Kinney
PR: Gary Jennings
KR: Shelton Gibson, Gary Jennings

Schedule breakdown:

West Virginia has a good chance to start the season 4-0. It gets Mizzou, Youngstown State and Kansas State at home, and a Week 3 bye gives the Mountaineers an extra week to prepare for BYU, a team notorious for putting up big offensive numbers, in D.C.

The ‘Eers are a more talented team than Kansas State, but will need to play exceptional run defense and take care of the ball if they expect to beat the Wildcats for the first time since joining the Big 12 in 2012.

West Virginia gets a Week 6 bye to prepare for a road trip to Texas Tech, what I consider a swing game. Red Raiders quarterback Patrick Mahomes (4,653 yds, 36 TDs, 15 INTs in 2015) figures to be a Heisman darkhorse this season, so the Mountaineers will need to be able to run the ball and play keep-away.

From there, a gauntlet of 7-consecutive conference games follow. West Virginia gets TCU at home in Week 8, but plays Oklahoma State on the road the following week.

The Mountaineers should get an easy home win over Kansas in Week 10, but will be tested by what should be a very good Texas defense the following week in Austin, Texas.

By this time, too, attrition will inevitably begin to set in. The best teams in the nation are the ones that are built to last, and while West Virginia is a veteran-laden team, an injury to Howard or safeties Tyler or Harper could prove to be costly. The Mountaineers final two games against Iowa State (on the road) and Baylor (at home) are both winnable.

Bottom line: I think anything from 5-7 to 9-3 is possible. I’d gauge the most realistic number of wins at 7, given the conference gauntlet and the attrition variable. But, Howard’s play – good or bad – will effect that number. He started last season with Heisman-caliber numbers, but faltered against tougher opponents. If Year 2 is indeed Skyler Howard’s year, 9 wins is very possible. He has the luxury of having two – possibly three – quality backs to lean on, so his primary concern should be not turning the ball over. But, the Mountaineers will almost inevitably lose a game at some point during that conference stretch from October to December. It’ll be how Howard – and the rest of the team – bounce back from the loss(es) that will depend on whether West Virginia plays in a New Year’s Day bowl or sends Holgorsen packing. Another 7-win year might buy Holgorsen another year, but 6 will not. The sixth-year head coach has two years remaining on a six-year contract extension he signed in 2012.

My Big 12 expansion shortlist

By Dillon Durst

Conference expansion fever is here, again.

After realignment waves in 2011 and 2012, the Big 12 announced this week its intention to add up to four teams. BYU, Houston, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Memphis, Boise State, UCF, USF, Colorado State and Tulane have all shown interest.

Here are the pros and cons of the Top 4 schools on my shortlist:

1. Cincinatti

Current conference: American Athletic

Location: Cincinnati, Ohio

Enrollment: 43,691 (2014)

Pros: As a WVU grad, Cincinnati makes the most sense geographically. The Mountaineers’ closest conference opponent, Iowa State, is 871 miles (13 hours, 41 minutes) from campus. Cincinnati is a five-hour drive (309 miles) from Morgantown. The Bearcats are 101-52 since 2004 (Mark Dantonio’s first season). Their basketball program is 207-129 since 2006 (head coach Mick Cronin’s first season), including six straight 20-win seasons. The school completed renovations to Nippert Stadium in September 2015, bumping capacity from 35,097 to 40,000.

Cons: As the Des Moines Register‘s Randy Peterson put it, Cincinnati isn’t exactly a huge brand name, and they’re overshadowed in Ohio by the Buckeyes.

Verdict: If the Big 12 opts to go big and add four schools, I can’t imagine Cincinnati would be left out. But I could see BYU and Houston potentially leapfrogging the Bearcats (Houston already has the endorsement of Greg Fenves, UT’s president, and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott) if the conference were to choose just two.

2. byu

Current conference: Independent

Location: Provo, Utah

Enrollment: 29,672 (2014)

Pros: Strength of program. BYU is 43-22 since 2011, and ranks 14th on the list of most Top 25 FBS wins the last 10 years (93-37). The Cougars have also played in 11 consecutive bowl games. The school’s basketball team is 98-43 since joining the West Coast Conference in 2011, including three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Cons: Location. Provo is 1,932 miles from Morgantown (30 hours), and 1,256 from Austin (20 hours, 48 minutes). But BYU said it’s open to discussing a football-only option to get into the league.

Verdict: I think BYU is in a good position to land an invitation. The Cougars seem to be the popular pick among college football fans, and the strength of its basketball team is a bonus.

3. houston

Current conference: American Athletic

Location: Houston, Texas

Enrollment: 42,704 (2015)

Pros: Houston’s coming off a 13-1 season, including a 38-24 win over then-No. 9 Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. The school has head coach Tom Herman, who also reeled in the nation’s 35th-ranked recruiting class in 2016, which included a five-star defensive lineman, under contract until 2020. The Cougars rank 20th on the list of most Top 25 FBS wins the last 10 years (88-44), and their basketball program is decent, compiling a 220-193 record since 2004. Houston, which sits in the Big 12’s historical southwest footprint, also ranks 4th on the list of the most populous incorporated places in the U.S.

Cons: It would mean a fifth Texas school, but is that really a big deal?

Verdict: I think Houston will get the first invitation to join the Big 12.

4. boise state

Current conference: Mountain West

Location: Boise, Idaho

Enrollment: 22,113 (2015)

Pros: Boise State ranks No. 1 on both the list of most FBS wins since 2000 (176-32) and most Top 25 FBS wins the past 10 years (113-19), including 14 straight bowl appearances.

Cons: Much like BYU, the Broncos’ location in southwest Idaho isn’t ideal. But they could be a travel partner for the Cougars.

Verdict: UConn widely seems to be the fourth legitimate candidate among the media, with Boise State on the outside looking in. It all depends if the Big 12 is more interested in bringing in a quality basketball school over another football-dominated school.

Creating a 16-team Power 5 Utopia

By Dillon Durst

ESPN Senior Writer Ryan McGee‘s recent article “How college football’s Power 5 should expand” made for some interesting reading.
McGee basically created a 16-team Power 5 Utopia, which features the newly-named Big 16 (Big 12) and Pac 16 conferences, along with enhanced versions of the ACC, SEC and Big Ten conferences.
While I dig McGee’s concept, I took it a step further by flip-flopping a few teams throughout the field. So, here we go.

Italics = conference newcomer
* denotes division swap

SEC

East
Clemson
Florida
Florida State
Georgia
Kentucky
South Carolina
Tennessee
Vanderbilt
West
Alabama
Auburn
Arkansas
Louisville
LSU
Memphis
Mississippi State
Ole Miss

Overview: College football’s best conference gets a BIG upgrade here with the addition of Clemson and Florida State to the East, while Louisville and Memphis join a perennially powerful West. The West has been noticeably better than the East in recent years, so the addition of the Tigers and Seminoles — both built for SEC competition — brings the East up to par with the West.

ACC

North
Boston College
Marshall
Navy
Notre Dame
Pittsburgh
Syracuse
Virginia
West Virginia
South
Duke
Georgia Tech
Miami
NC State
North Carolina
South Florida
Wake Forest
Virginia Tech

Overview: Rather than Atlantic and Coastal divisions, I’m sticking with McGee’s concept of breaking the ACC down into North and South. Marshall, Navy, Notre Dame and West Virginia are added to the North, while South Florida joins the South. The addition of the Irish help alleviate the sting of losing Clemson and Florida State to the SEC, while the rising Tar Heels anchor the South. The North is the noticeably stronger division, but I’m hopeful that Miami and Virginia Tech — both under first-year coaches — bring the South up to par. (The Backyard Brawl is also preserved under this arrangement.)

Big 16

North
BYU
Iowa State
Kansas State
Missouri
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
TCU
Texas Tech
South
Baylor
Houston
Kansas
New Mexico
SMU

Texas
Texas A&M
Tulsa

Overview: Four years after bolting for the SEC, Missouri and Texas A&M return to the heartland. After shifting a few Lonestar State teams around, I feel I’ve reached a well-balanced mix between the North and South divisions. The Sooners, Horned Frogs and Cowboys anchor the North, while Baylor, Texas, Houston and Texas A&M round out the South. Also, and more importantly, the Texas-Texas A&M rivalry lives on.

Pac 16

North
Boise State
Nevada

Oregon
Oregon State
Stanford
*Utah
Washington
Washington State
South
Arizona
Arizona State
*California
Colorado
Hawaii
UCLA
UNLV
USC

Overview: Boise State and Nevada depart the Mountain West for the Pac 16 North, while Utah and Cal swap divisions. UNLV brings the Vegas sports market to the conference, while Hawaii comes on board because, well, why not?

Big Ten

East
Cincinnati
Indiana
Maryland
Michigan
Ohio State
Penn State
Rutgers
Temple
West
Illinois
Iowa
*Michigan State
Minnesota
Nebraska
Northwestern
Purdue
Wisconsin

Overview: The Big Ten has been making a push to become the top conference in college football in recent years, so not a lot of change here. Cincinnati and Temple join the East from the AAC, allowing Michigan State to slide over to the West to help balance the two divisions. 

Impact of Will Grier’s transfer to WVU

By Dillon Durst

Former Florida Gators quarterback Will Grier might be the most talented and physically gifted signal-caller West Virginia’s had since Geno Smith.
The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Grier has a winning track record as a starter, guiding the Gators to a 6-0 record in 2015 before losing the latter half of the season to an NCAA-mandated suspension for PEDs (original story from October 2015 can be read here). The year-long suspension, which kicked in mid-October 2015, could force Grier to sit out the first six games of the 2017 season on top of the mandatory transfer year, which will require him to sit out the entire 2016 season.
According to a source close to the WVU football team, the Mountaineers plan to appeal Grier’s drug suspension and are optimistic about their chances of obtaining a waiver that will make him eligible for their ’17 home opener.

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Grier opted to transfer from Florida after Gators’ coach Jim McElwain wouldn’t guarantee him the starting job back if/when he returned from his suspension, according to Mike Bianchi of the “Orlando Sentinel.” The Gators added blue-chip quarterback Feleipe Franks, an early enrollee, to their ’16 recruiting class in February. Former Alabama and Oregon State quarterback Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby, a graduate transfer from Purdue, will also compete with Franks for the starting job this spring and fall. Grier, a redshirt freshman last season at Florida, will have two years to play two seasons in Morgantown.
Off-the-field factors aside, Grier is a highly talented quarterback. The Davidson, N.C., native was a four-star prospect out of Davidson Day High and was the No. 2-ranked pro-style quarterback in the 2014 class, according to 247 Sports. He chose the Gators over offers from numerous ACC and SEC powers. Grier will have plenty of time to learn WVU coach Dana Holgorsen‘s system and has the necessary tools to excel in it once handed the keys. He’s an excellent athlete with a strong arm and exceptional pocket presence. Before his suspension, he led the Gators to a 38-10 win over then-No. 3 Ole Miss, totaling 271 passing yards and four touchdowns. Grier will enroll at WVU in May, per a WVU release.
The Mountaineers currently have six quarterbacks on their 2016 roster, including the incumbent and former JUCO transfer Skyler Howard; former clue-chip prospect and redshirt sophomore William Crest; David Sills, who saw time at receiver as a true freshman last season; and Chris Chugunov, who took a redshirt in 2015. The Mountaineers also signed three-star quarterback Cody Saunders to their ’16 recruiting class.
Howard’s playing time next season won’t be affected by the addition of Grier. However, there’s always the potential for transfers among the younger quarterbacks due to playing time, especially nowadays. Personally, I think Sills projects higher at receiver — already having demonstrated his ability to be a big-play threat toward the end of last season — and Crest’s raw athleticism allows him to play receiver, running back/H-back or quarterback (when needed). Holgorsen has also spoken highly of Chugunov since he arrived on campus in January 2015, and could potentially push Grier for the starting job in ’17.