Spring football is drawing to a close throughout the Big 12, and teams have started gaining more clarity as to what their 2021 squads are going to look like. As they head into summer workouts, we’ll get into some tentative impressions of all the teams, providing a projection of offensive and defensive starters for the upcoming season (returning starters in bold) as well as some post-spring observations.
Neal Brown has been making slow but steady progress to rebuild the program in Morgantown. In two seasons, West Virginia went 3-6 and then 4-4 in conference play, continuing their steady climb towards the top half of the Big 12. Last season saw Brown get his first Top 25 win in Morgantown over then-No. 16 Kansas State, a squad that subsequently logged a sub-.500 season. Getting that next “signature win” feels like the step that West Virginia needs to take. This season could potentially be that year, but, after an exodus of players to the transfer portal, how much will the Mountaineers continue to grow in 2021?
Projected 2021 West Virginia
|WR||Bryce Ford-Wheaton (Jr.)||DT||Dante Stills (Sr.)|
|WR||Winston Wright, Jr. (Jr.)||NT||Jordan Jefferson (Jr.)|
|LT||Brandon Yates (So.)||DE||Jalen Thornton (So.)|
|LG||James Gmiter (Jr.)||BDT||Vandarious Cowan (Sr.)|
|C||Zach Frazier (So.)||WLB||Josh Chandler-Semeo (Sr.)|
|RG||John Hughes (Sr.)||MLB||Exree Loe (Sr.)|
|RT||Doug Nester (Jr.)||SPR||Scottie Young (Sr.)|
|TE||Mike O’Laughlin (Jr.)||LCB||Jackie Matthews (Sr.)|
|WR||Sean Ryan (Sr.)||FS||Alonzo Addae (Sr.)|
|QB||Jarret Doege (Sr.)||CS||Sean Mahone (Sr.)|
|RB||Leddie Brown (Sr.)||RCB||Nicktroy Fortune (Jr.)|
The Returners Need To Step Up On Offense
The Mountaineers’ offense lacked explosiveness last year, averaging 5.4 yards per play, a stat that ranked eighth in the Big 12. There are eight starters returning, but it might be a stretch to say that this offense will make massive strides in 2021. Can they maximize their ceiling, though? Super senior Jarret Doege is behind center, and he’s been reliable and accurate in Neal Brown’s offense thus far. The centerpiece of the offense is likely to once again be Leddie Brown, an All-Big 12 running back who returns as one of fourteen other rushers in the country to top 1,000 yards in 2020.
The offense could really get a boost if the Mountaineers can get more out of their receiving corps. West Virginia has had elite receivers in those position groups in the past, but it’s unclear as of yet who might step up to have that type of season in 2021. Being able to go up and complete catches on a reliable basis really plagued the receiving corps as a whole last season, as 2019 breakout Sam James had a bit of a sophomore slump, while Winston Wright developed into the team leader with 553 yards receiving. Without an obvious standout in this group, the Mountaineers could really benefit from collective improvement from the whole group.
Can The Defense Maintain This Standard?
West Virginia’s bump above .500 last season was really keyed by a defensive lineup that was a Top 25 unit in college football in 2020. It’s unfortunately the side of the ball where they’ll have to deal with the most turnover. Their concerns will particularly be aimed at the defensive line, which was the best position group for this team last season. With nose tackle Darius Stills off to the NFL and lineman Jeffrey Pooler transferring to Northwestern, the three man front for the Mountaineers will be a little bit thinner than expected. Shoring up the players surrounding Dante Stills, who is already generating 2022 NFL Draft buzz, will no doubt be a project continuing into the fall.
The other two levels of the defense should be anchored mostly by seniors who are returning starters or have seen significant playing time in Morgantown. The secondary added Arizona transfer Scottie Young, who started for three years for the Wildcats, so it’s expected that the back end can be as stingy as it was last year. If injuries don’t become a problem, overall the Mountaineers should be able to avoid serious dropoff here.
This Year May Not Differ All That Much
Despite having a strong showing in 2020, there’s likely still work to be done for West Virginia to decidedly separate itself from the bottom of the Big 12. The primary issue here has to do with the upside of Brown’s squad, which only won one game away from Morgantown last year. To really have a banner year, the Mountaineers will need some as-yet unheralded players to emerge on both sides of the ball. If that doesn’t materialize, this season’s results could be more or less identical to last season’s product, when West Virginia ended with a quality bowl win. That wouldn’t necessarily be a negative, as Brown looks to establish a solid floor for this program before taking it beyond that.