Spring practices are beginning to wind down across the Big 12 and teams are sending their squads into summer workouts. As they move forward, we’ll provide some thoughts and observations on things we’ve learned after the past few weeks.
West Virginia began their football practices in late February and wrapped everything up this weekend. The Mountaineers enter 2018 with a good deal of hype, hoping to make a championship run and win their first ever Big 12 title.
There are good reasons to believe that the Mountaineers might live up to those expectations, but also signs of challenges they’ll have to overcome in order to do that. Below are some thoughts on the state of West Virginia football following the end of practices last Saturday.
1. THE OFFENSE MAY INDEED BE ELITE
Will Grier told ESPN that the Mountaineer offense could be the “best in the country,” but since West Virginia cancelled their spring game, we won’t get a chance to find out for ourselves. Grier, who cut his hair this offseason, is reportedly back to full strength and throwing well after injuring his finger late last season.
He’s coming back from a 2017 campaign where he amassed almost 3,500 passing yards, so flowing locks or no flowing locks, the West Virginia quarterback could set a school record or two if he stays healthy. In all likelihood, the trio of Grier, David Sills V and Gary Jennings will combine to be the most lethal passing combination in the Big 12 in 2018.
It would have been nice to know more about some other positions, though. The spring depth chart released by West Virginia listed junior Marcus Simms and Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons at the starting X and Z receiver positions, respectively, and it would have been nice to see them in live action.
2. A CLEAR 1,000 YARD RUNNING BACK HAS YET TO EMERGE
Gone with Justin Crawford are the 1,061 yards rushing he had last season. If West Virginia hopes to find the same kind of balance it did in 2017, do they need someone to fill in the role as the undisputed starter?
Three candidates have emerged to replace him – Kennedy McCoy, Martell Pettaway and Alec Sinkfield – but none of the three seems to have solidified the starting spot. Sinkfield, a redshirt freshman, received some praise over the spring, but he’s probably got a long way to go before he becomes “the guy” in 2018.
With offensive coordinator Jake Spavital looking to use the tight ends more in the run game, it will also be interesting to see how that position plays out. Senior Trevon Wesco was listed ahead of heralded Miami transfer Jovani Haskins on the latest depth chart, a move that could be telling. Since Westco is the better blocker, it would make sense to get him more snaps next season if the Mountaineers need another big body to bolster the running game.
Speaking of paving the way for the running backs, what are we to make of Logan Thimons, listed as a first team fullback, who was just recently converted from linebacker? Is Thimons a viable option at the position or just the best available player in a room lacking depth?
3. INJURIES AND DEPARTURES HAVE CREATED DEPTH ISSUES
Over fourteen different players, most of them backups, are no longer with the Mountaineers after an offseason that saw a good deal of departures. There are currently only two scholarship quarterbacks behind Grier and the defensive roster desperately needs more faces on the line and in the secondary.
Other position groups were affected as well. Linebacker Brendan Ferns, who could have been a good addition to the West Virginia linebacker corps, will again most likely miss next season due to an ACL injury.
Quondarius Qualls, another linebacker who might have started in 2018, also suffered a similar injury and is likely to miss at least part of next season. To fill in some of these gaps, the Mountaineers are exploring the graduate transfer market, but there’s no certainty that they’ll find positive contributors.
4. THE DEFENSIVE LINE WILL BE AN AREA OF CONCERN
“I am more excited about this year coming up than any year that I have been a coordinator,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said after the conclusion of spring practices. That should be good news for West Virginia fans, whose defense was the worst in the Big 12 at stopping the run last year.
Improving in that area will continue to be a priority into the summer and fall, though, especially along the line of scrimmage. The 3-3-5 defense that Gibson likes to run relies on strong players up front who can wreak havoc and eat up blockers.
Even though the defensive end positions have some depth, nose tackle is a position that needs to drastically improve next year. The Mountaineers lost freshman All-American Lamonte McDougle, who played that spot in the middle last season, to transfer in March.
Of course, they wasted no time in trying to replace him by adding former five star Kenny Bigelow as a graduate transfer. Bigelow and sophomore Darius Stills will compete there in the fall, but both have questions.
Stills lacks game experience, having played in only two contests last year. Bigelow, on the other hand, has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and that doesn’t bode well for a position group that’s already thin. It wouldn’t be surprising, therefore, to see the Mountaineers go after another graduate transfer along the line over the next few months.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen’s squad didn’t escape spring practices totally unscathed, but Grier, maybe the most important player on the team, appears more than ready to go.
The only other teams in the conference who return more offensive production than the Mountaineers – Baylor, Kansas, Kansas State and Texas – were not exactly impressive on that side of the ball in 2017. If a running back emerges who can match Crawford’s numbers, West Virginia might have the best offense in the league.
Of course, the defensive side of the ball is another story. There are some solid starters, like Pro Football Focus All-American linebacker David Long and veteran defensive back Dravon-Askew Henry. Without a lot of depth or proven playmakers around them, though, West Virginia desperately needs transfers and young guys to step up. Adding size and strength will be key, particularly among the lineman.
We’ll have to wait until August to see what kinds of strides they make there. It’s reasonable to think the Mountaineers could win the Big 12 title next season, but they still have plenty to prove.
The Mountaineers begin their season on September 1st against the Tennessee Volunteers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.