by Jim Buzzerd
Season on the brink
High school and college football begin in earnest this weekend and I believe that fact will make a lot of people happy. Personally, I keep my eyes on state and local high school scores, but my interest is college football in general and the West Virginia University Mountaineers in particular. Preseason hype surrounded the Mountaineers a year ago. Quarterback Will Grier was a leading Heisman Trophy candidate with a talented cast of receivers to throw to in Gary Jennings and David Sills. That team ended up with a disappointing 8-4 record that saw WVU blow a 31-14 halftime lead at Oklahoma State with a Big 12 Championship on the line.
Fast-forward to now and a lot has changed in eight months. Grier, Jennings, Sills and Trevon Wesco are all gone from the offense as is coach Dana Holgorsen, who is given credit for WVU’s productive offense during his eight-year tenure. A new chapter in West Virginia football history begins Saturday as new head coach Neal Brown unveils his first WVU team at 2 p.m. against James Madison at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The 38-year-old Brown comes to WVU after a successful four year run at Troy where he went 4-8, 10-3, 11-2 and 10-3. Brown also led Troy to wins at LSU and Nebraska during his tenure. Optimism is high that Brown will be successful in Morgantown. He hit the ground running in January displaying an attention to detail in all things especially in hiring a staff and keeping the recruiting class together. Even the most ardent Holgorsen supporter recognizes that former coach was not exactly prepared for a head coaching job when he took over. Brown comes in having demonstrated having a handle on being a head coach.
Unlike Holgorsen, who inherited Geno Smith, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, Brown’s cupboard is relatively bare. The running back position returns Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield. The offensive line returns several players, but only Colton McKivitz and Josh Sills are coming off a productive season. Generally speaking, the offensive line was the weak link to last season’s offensive issues. Yeah, I know, it was a dynamic offense, but often gave up crucial sacks and struggled on the ground in short yardage situations.
Much of fall camp was dedicated to finding the best lineup and some shuffling along the O-line has been done. One move is Sills from right guard to center. One gets the impression that offensive line coach Matt Moore is also an up and coming talent who will be instrumental in elevating the line play. That will be crucial for 2019 if WVU wants to exceed the expectations of those who have the Mountaineers at the bottom of the Big 12.
Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall has won the quarterback job and it will be interesting to see how Brown handles his development. Only receivers T.J. Simmons and Tevin Bush have played in a Mountaineer game before. A lot depends on Kendall, of course, but the new receiving corps has some intriguing players. Temple transfer Sean Ryan was granted immediate eligibility last Thursday and is now a starter at one wide out spot. The 6-3 Brooklyn native’s name was prominent in fall camp recaps. Freshman speedster Sam James gets the nod at the final wide receiver position.
Two other receivers to keep an eye on are Bryce Wheaton and George Campbell. Wheaton is a redshirt freshman and the grandson of Mountaineer legend Garrett Ford. Campbell is a graduate transfer from Florida State. Both players are listed second on the depth chart, but at 6-3 and 6-4 respectively; bring good size to the perimeter.
To say the West Virginia defense has struggled to keep points off the board in recent seasons would be an understatement. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has a reputation as an ‘old school’ coach and at 59 is the senior statesman on the new staff with 34 years of collegiate coaching experience. Look for a defense with an edge this season.
The familiar names of Reese Donahue, brothers Darius and Dante Stills returning the defensive front is a good start to that side of the ball. The first depth chart lists Quandarius Qualls, Josh Chandler and Dylan Tonkery and Jovanni Stewart as starters at linebacker.
The starters in the secondary are Hakeem Bailey and Keith Washington at the corners and Josh Norwood and Sean Mahone at safety. Perhaps the scariest thing is second on the depth chart at those positions are Tae Mayo, Nickroy Fortune, Kerry Martin and Tykee Smith are all true freshman. No matter how talented these freshmen are it is unsettling to think that this time last year they were playing high school football and will now be facing Big 12 offenses.
The thing to remember is to keep expectations reasonable. Replacing the offensive firepower from last year will be impossible, at least from the outset. Then consider the schedule. West Virginia is one of just four schools with 11 Power 5 teams on the schedule. Some schools may schedule just nine. And don’t think this week’s FCS opponent James Madison makes the schedule any easier. The Dukes are ranked second in the FCS poll and return virtually everyone from their 9-4 team a season ago.
Of course James Madison is also undergoing a coaching change as former WVU player Curt Cignetti takes over in Harrisonburg. I hear banter from JMU fans and some talking heads calling for an upset in Morgantown Saturday. WVU is a touchdown favorite, but the potential for either side to struggle with so much ‘newness’ to their programs is significant. The game will be televised on AT&T Sportsnet Pittsburgh.
As for any prediction; I’m setting the bar at 6-6 and reserving the option to revisit after several games.