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2020 Season

Big 12 Season Preview: West Virginia Has Pieces To Progress Under Brown

The second year man has enough coming back to continue moving forward in 2020.

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Getty Images - Justin K. Aller

As college football continues to try and ramp up athletic activity for the upcoming season, we turn to looking more closely at what to expect from each Big 12 team come fall. As the summer rolls along, we’ll preview the entire conference, providing an overview of the offense, defense, and special teams. Included as well is a projected depth chart, with returning starters in bold.

West Virginia entered 2019 with first year coach Neal Brown and a fair amount of turnover from the year previous. The Mountaineers struggled through much of conference, going on the road to beat Kansas 29-24 before losing five straight. As the season wore on, however, the team saw improvement, playing single possession games against three Top 25 opponents and wining their last two out of three contests.

Their 5-7 season had some positive signs for the Mountaineers, therefore, who did have some stars emerge after a below-average season. As they move onto 2020, the Mountaineers look poised to develop some of those standouts in Brown’s second season. That kind of progress would help the West Virginia faithful to feel the program’s heading in the right direction.

Projected 2020 West Virginia Depth Chart

OFFENSEDEFENSE
WRBryce Wheaton (So.)DTDante Stills (Jr.)
WRWinston Wright Jr. (So)NTDarius Stills (Sr.)
LTJunior Uzebu (So.)DEJeffrey Pooler Jr. (Sr.)
LGJames Gmiter (So.)BDTDylan Tonkery (Sr.)
CBriason Mays (So.)WLBExree Loe (Jr.)
RGChase Behrndt (Sr.)MLBJosh Chandler (Jr.)
RTJohn Hughes (Jr.)SPRTykee Smith (So.)
SLOTT.J. Simmons (Sr.)LCBTae Mayo (So.)
WRSam James (So.)FSKerry Martin Jr. (So.)
QBJarret Doege (Sr.)CSSean Mahone (Sr.)
RBLeddie Brown (Jr.)RCBNicktroy Fortune (So.)

West Virginia Offensive Outlook

The offensive side of the ball, where West Virginia averaged 20.6 points per game last season, is where improvement needs to be made the most in Morgantown. Questions still linger at quarterback, where the two primary starters last season, Jarret Doege and Austin Kendall, were both transfers. Kendall completed 61.5 percent of his passes, but had ten picks through nine games. Doege, who is the likely starter headed into 2020, finished last season strong, throwing seven touchdowns and posting 2-1 record.

The offensive line returns three starters from a unit that was one of the best in the Big 12 in pass protection last season. Both tackles will have to be replaced. John Hughes and Junior Uzebu are likely candidates. Whoever starts, the line will need to improve in their ability to open up lanes in the running game, after the Mountaineers averaged only 2.6 yards per game on the ground last season.

Junior Leddie Brown, who was the leading rusher last year, is expected to help in that regard, and he could be the starter in the fall. Despite transfers, there are still playmakers in the receiving corps. Sam James burst onto the college football scene as a true freshman, and was West Virginia’s leading receiver in 2019, so anticipate more big things from him. T.J. Simmons also put up strong numbers and could have an NFL future. With four starters returning, the wide receivers are the strength of this offense.

West Virginia Defensive Outlook

West Virginia’s defensive line was a bright spot for the team in 2019, and they could have the best unit in the conference this season. Nose tackle Darius Stills was an All-Big 12 First Team selection last year, and could be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Brother Dante Stills made the Second Team, and has that type of potential as a junior. Senior Jeffrey Pooler was disruptive in his seven starts last season, so expect him to produce quality results again.

In the linebacker corps, Dylan Tonkery returns as a senior to lead after 25 career starts, so he’ll serve as a stalwart there. The other returning starter is Josh Chandler, who had 7.2 tackles per game last season, good enough for seventh in the Big 12. One new starter will have to be identified among this group, so look for Exree Loe, who played in every 2019 contest, to step up in the middle.

West Virginia’s biggest concern on the defensive side of the ball is probably in the back end, where the Mountaineers could be quite young in 2020. Senior Sean Mahone has starting experience, and returns at safety, but he’s likely to be surrounded by youth. Tykee Smith was a starter last season as a freshman, and he’s back at the spear position, but three other starting spots will need to be filled. Both cornerback roles and free safety could be manned by sophomores Tae Mayo, Nickroy Fortune, and Kerry Martin Jr., respectively. Both Fortune and Martin should benefit from significant playing time in 2019.

Special Teams Outlook

West Virginia has most of last year’s key special teams pieces coming back. A new punter will need to be found, however. Redshirt freshman Kolton McGhee was a back in 2019, and is a probable name there. If kicker Evan Staley can improve on his 64.7 percentage from a year ago, that could give the Mountaineers an edge in close games in 2020.

Final Thoughts

Despite fielding a struggling offense throughout last season (which was at the bottom of many statistical categories in the Big 12), the Mountaineers were one win away from qualifying for a bowl. Now, they’ve got enough coming back on both sides of the ball to suggest that West Virginia can take that next step to .500-level play and beyond. It’s probably too much to expect the Mountaineers to make a giant leap forward this season, but the second year under Brown should witness definite on-the-field improvement. With young but talented skill players and some pro potential on defense, this team should be better in 2020.

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