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2019 Season

Big 12 Spring Wrap-Up: Neal Brown Working To Overcome First Year Challenges At West Virginia

The Mountaineers have hired a coach with the potential to take them places. Where do things stand going into Brown’s inaugural season?

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Getty Images - Joe Robbins

Spring football has drawn to a close throughout the Big 12, and teams have started gaining more clarity as to what their 2019 squads are going to look like. As they head into summer workouts, we’ll get into some of the possible issues and potential surprises in store for them.

Following the exit of Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers find themselves with a new head coach in Neal Brown, who comes to West Virginia after going 35-16 at Troy. Brown brings an energy to the Mountaineers that helped him compete with and even beat some of the best teams in college football.

The real question facing the young head coach is how will this all translate at his new gig? West Virginia hasn’t exactly been a doormat in the Big 12, so good things should be expected. What does the new staff have to work with headed into this upcoming season, though?

Here we get into some tentative impressions of this year’s team, providing a projection of offensive and defensive starters for the upcoming season (returning starters in bold) as well as some post-spring observations about West Virginia football.

PROJECTED 2019 STARTERS
OFFENSE DEFENSE
QB Austin Kendall (Jr.) DE Taijh Alston (So.)
RB Kennedy McCoy (So.) DT Reese Donahue (Sr.)
WR T.J. Simmons (Jr.) NT Darius Stills (Jr.)
WR Tevin Bush (Jr.) BAN Zach Sandwisch (Jr.)
WR Sam James (Fr.) WLB Josh Chandler (So.)
TE Jovani Haskins (Jr.) MLB Dylan Tonkery (Jr.)
LT Kelby Wickline (Sr.) SPR JoVanni Stewart (Sr.)
LG Josh Sills (So.) CB Keith Washington (Sr.)
C Chase Behrndt (Jr.) CAT Derrek Pitts Jr. (Jr.)
RG Michael Brown (Jr.) FS Kenny Robinson (Jr.)
RT Colton McKivitz (Jr.) CB Josh Norwood (Sr.)

Will Brown Be Hitting The Reset Button This Year?

Headed into 2019, it seemed like Brown was the best positioned head coach of the four new hires in the Big 12. That might still be true as far as his long term tenure is concerned, but after losing so much talent to transfer, graduation, and early draft declarations, the fortunes of this year’s Mountaineers are a little more up in the air.

Marcus Simms, who was on track to be the headline wide receiver for the ‘Eers next fall, has given all indication that he intends to transfer, and center Matt Jones, who started under the previous regime last season, has transferred out as well.

The Mountaineers now have only three returning offensive starters, and are looking fairly thin at multiple position groups. What Brown did at Troy was no doubt impressive, and what he does in Morgantown may eventually be equally impressive. Nonetheless, the new head man at West Virginia may end needing more of a Year Zero than at first assumed.

Quarterback Will Be A Mystery Until Fall

Brown’s been mostly mum on the quarterback competition, at least paying lip service to the idea that it’s still a competition. Popular opinion still seems to be that Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall is the front runner.

Kendall’s stood out in spring practices, and he wasn’t such a highly recruited quarterback out of high school for no reason. The most we can say about him is that he didn’t do enough to beat out two former Heisman winner at Oklahoma, but that’s not exactly a negative.

Trying to gauge Kendall’s abilities in live action is difficult, though, because he played so sparingly for the Sooners. His competition, Jack Allison, at least has a game under his belt, but it was an unspectacular performance against a below-average Syracuse defense. With so little to go off of, though, it’s hard to say definitively who the starter will be until the staff names one. For that, we’ll just have to wait until August.

The Running Back Room Is Solid

Troy ran the ball 56.5 percent of the time last season, and Brown’s staff wants to go to the ground game that often this year, they’ll have the backs to do it. West Virginia returns their entire running back room, which might just be the strength of the team.

The combination of Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown, and Alec Sinkfield combined for 1,939 yards last season, and they could constitute a four-headed monster coming out of the backfield in 2019. Don’t be surprised if the Mountaineers run the ball more frequently this fall and play to that strength.

The Pass Defense Should Improve

West Virginia’s secondary returns all but one starter, meaning that the pass defense should improve in 2019 under new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. That’s especially true with free safety Kenny Robinson Jr. in the defensive backfield, who will likely be playing in the NFL someday soon.

The questions for the Mountaineer defense, on the other hand, are almost all in the front six, where about half the players are gone from the 2018 two deep. Reese Donahue is a returner from last season who should step in at tackle for the Mountaineers, but West Virginia will have to develop players around him.

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