Big 12 spring check-ins: West Virginia

Ian Boyd

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West Virginia has been much closer than the talk I tend to hear about them would indicate. They're mostly ignored in the Big 12, despite going 4-4 last year and playing everyone but Iowa State close. Neal Brown has had his team playing competitive football both of these first two seasons and has managed to retool their offensive line a little more each season in pursuit of building a physical team.

There are complications for next season. One big one is losing nose tackle Darius Stills, a disruptive and athletic player, to the NFL. Other complications include some exits through the transfer portal, notably of good defensive backs Dreshun Miller (Auburn) and Tykee Smith (Georgia). If defensively good SEC teams are recruiting your defensive backs you're certainly doing something right, but on the other hand now they're gone and must be replaced.

The Mountaineers are also losing linebacker Tony Fields, who proved highly adept playing behind the Stills bros last year and leading the team with 88 tackles. The portal also giveth, yielding former 4-star linebacker Lance Dixon from Penn State and 4-star offensive lineman Doug Nester from Virginia Tech.

Neal Brown's main challenge this season is the same as it was over multiple seasons at Troy. He's consistently fielded strong rushing attacks at Troy and West Virginia and much better defenses than Air Raid guys are known for, but has yet to have a quarterback who can land knockout blows in the vertical passing game. That's more or less the 2021 season for them.

Infrastructure stress test: Offense

The Mountaineers are pretty underrated here. They have center Zach Frazier back from 2020 along with guard James Gmiter and incoming Virginia Tech transfer Doug Nester is the real deal and 6-6, 320 pounds. Tight end Mike O'Laughlin was good a year ago leading their spread run game for power back Leddie Brown and smaller slot Winston Wright was dangerous on RPOs and in the dropback passing game.

West Virginia ran the ball effectively on most everyone in the league last year save for Texas (where Brown was dinged up), Iowa State, and then Army in the bowl game. Leddie Brown finished with 1010 yards at 5.1 ypc with nine rushing touchdowns. When they couldn't run the ball as well, such as against Texas, they were often very effective with the Air Raid underneath passing game, which brings us to Jarrett Doege.

Doege is an interesting player to observe on film from 2020. One minute he's consistently hitting throws underneath and putting the ball on the money, perhaps hitting a corner route, the next minute he's missing open vertical shots. I'm not sure how healthy he was last season but overall his ability to push the ball down the field, or rather his inability, was a major limiting factor on the offense. Considering he was an upgrade here over Austin Kendall, that puts West Virginia's struggles in the Neal Brown era in a clear light.

They get Doege back this year and then they also have young Garrett Greene after a redshirt year. Greene is 5-11, 192 with a strong arm but also some really good wheels and a love for running the ball on zone-reads and draws. If Doege continues to hold them back expect to see some of Greene, who can execute a ball control spread offense just as easily due to his running ability and might bring more upside throwing it deep.

Infrastructure stress test: Defense

Lots of question marks here. Tykee Smith was a terrific nickel who could play man coverage on slot receivers, Stills was a great nose tackle, and then Tony Fields made all those tackles fitting behind them in their frequent 4-1 box alignments. They have slid senior Josh Chandler-Semedo inside to middle linebacker from the weak side, which is often more of an overhang in this defense, and then also have the Penn State transfer coming in.

Presumably they can get their guys making good fits and flowing to the football, they've done so quite well each of the last two seasons, and safeties Alonzo Addae, Kerry Martin, and Sean Mahone have now all been around for 2-3 years apiece and played well. The big question is whether they can continue to play well up front at defensive tackle.

Dante Stills is back to play 3-technique and VanDarius Cowan is back at weakside end after another injury plagued season. On the strong side they have Jeffery Pooler back after a decent 2020 season...and then there's Akheem Mesidor. This guy played at about 6-2, 255 or so last year, mostly at defensive end, and lead the team with six sacks. He got a lot of them with power moves and is now up to about 275 or so and working at nose tackle. Mesidor appears to be their best bet at nose tackle, unless the other Stills bro slides over so Mesidor can play 3-technique but the Mountaineers tend to use a 2i nose tackle anyways so the differences can be a bit blurred.

All that to say, the Mountaineers have a track record of getting really good play up the middle of their defense and they have a solid cast of characters but developing a younger player into a defensive tackle from a defensive end is certainly a thing. Mesidor and Stills need to be very good for this to continue to be a team strength...but they probably will be.

Space force speed test: Offense

Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sean Ryan both return from a year ago outside. Ford-Wheaton is a big target at 6-3, 218 while Ryan is 6-3, 195. Their fastest weapon is Winston Wright, who resides in the slot and will get deep shots from there, but it's hard to evaluate any of them because they've lacked consistent accuracy from quarterback when they want to take shots.

I think they have some of the talent they need but how good this group really is remains to be seen.

At tackle, Brandon Yates was a redshirt freshman last year who ended up winning left tackle during the season over similarly strong athlete Junior Uzebu. Yates played pretty well last season and is a young guy who is only now entering his third season. Nester isn't a bad tackle either although if they have someone good enough at right tackle to allow Nester to play guard they'll really be cooking (think Josh Sills for Oklahoma State).

West Virginia was able to generate opportunities to burn teams down the field last year with this same exact cast, now everyone is one year better with a fuller offseason to work things out. If they don't improve pretty substantially then someone's job will be at risk.

Space force speed test: Defense

West Virginia's favorite way to play coverage on defense has generally been to play inverted cover 2 on the boundary with the weakside linebacker in the flat and the corner playing a deep 1/2, freeing the boundary safety to play in the box or rotate to the field. So the boundary corner is more of a deep zone defender than a lockdown, press-man sort of player. The nickel and field corner tended to draw tougher assignments, especially the field cornerback who'd sometimes play man with no help.

Nicktroy Fortune is back to play the field corner spot after a solid last few seasons, or they could slide him over. Next guy up is probably Jackie Matthews, a senior and former JUCO about whom I know little and who hasn't played much. Former Arizona safety Scottie Young seems first in line to play the nickel or "spear" safety so possibly they'll play more cover 2 to the field to help him out and then perhaps lean on the boundary corner holding up more this season. We'll see. They have more sturdy players who know what they're doing this season on the back end than they do higher level, elite athletes but they do have Fortune.

In the pass-rush, getting Cowan back is a big win. He had two sacks in four games and is dangerous paired with tackles like Stills or Mesidor.

In summation

West Virginia has shown through two years under Neal Brown and his staff they can make the most of their roster and get everyone playing good, fundamental football while game planning intelligently on both sides of the ball. It all just comes down to whether they can find some knockout power on offense, be it Doege connecting much more often in the vertical passing game, Greene doing so, or Greene coming in and running wild like a Johnny Manziel.


Obviously this would be the most entertaining and one of the biggest monkey wrenches you could throw into the 2021 Big 12 season.
 
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cowboypopup

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Great write up as always, Ian. Always impressed at the info you glean from reports on other teams. Made me finally signed up for IT! I'll just tack on some additional notes and post-spring game observations.

Offensive Infrastructure: Looks like Nester might be the RG with Parker Moorer at RT. Moorer is the guy you highlighted on Twitter after the TCU game for absolutely burying his guy on a run play.

If Winston Wright doesn't grow, he will definitely compete for the Darren Sproles trophy this year, he was Doege's clear #1 target during the spring game. Doege is definitely the guy this year but Greene or maybe even Crowder will be ready come 2022.

And it looks like Avarius Sparrow, who was a raw former LBer when they recruited him, is first up at RB after Leddie Brown. He's got some burst and could give them a real second option for the first time since 2018. Tony Mathis also looks like he could take some snaps without killing the offense.

Defensive Infrastructure: Maybe I'm being silly but I'm more concerned about replacing Fields and Smith than Stills. There is a ton of depth on the DL, even beyond what you mention (Jefferson and Thornton have played in the past and should contribute and there are others scrapping for snaps), and if most of it stays healthy they will be fine.

There is still a gap between Holgo's guys and Brown's guys at LB (Brown has struggled to replenish the roster with true LBers for some reason). Dixon could be the answer but Chandler will be the starter out of the gate, the staff was high on James Thomas this spring but he doesn't see to be a serious option for 2021. At Will, it's just a line of former safeties and receivers (Loe, Faiverus, Devell Washington). And I guess we'll see how good Scottie Young is at Spear!

O Speed: Ryan can't beat anybody but he is a good blocker. Isaiah Esdale may be the starter at that outside spot by fall camp. BFW or bust, although Kaden Prather could be an alternate option if he can handle being a contributing true freshman better than Sam James did.

Yates is definitely the GUY at LT but the staff is practically licking its lips at the thought of Wyatt Millum showing up and taking snaps there in the fall.

D Speed: Not much to add here other than Brown picked up Charles Wood from Illinois State. IDK enough to scout his HUDL or anything but his stats suggest a dominant FCS corner. No idea how he translates but as you note, the staff has a good (although short) history with coaching up DBs. He and Matthews will split CB2 duties and he might even be favored to start.

Cowan, Bartlett and Taj Alston should form a quality pass rush if they stay healthy, which is...unlikely. Looks for Taurus Simmons and Lanell Carr to get play time when those three inevitably hurt themselves practicing or breathing.

Lotta words here, I hope y'all don't mind. Thanks for the write up!
 

Ian Boyd

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Great write up as always, Ian. Always impressed at the info you glean from reports on other teams. Made me finally signed up for IT! I'll just tack on some additional notes and post-spring game observations.

Offensive Infrastructure: Looks like Nester might be the RG with Parker Moorer at RT. Moorer is the guy you highlighted on Twitter after the TCU game for absolutely burying his guy on a run play.

If Winston Wright doesn't grow, he will definitely compete for the Darren Sproles trophy this year, he was Doege's clear #1 target during the spring game. Doege is definitely the guy this year but Greene or maybe even Crowder will be ready come 2022.

And it looks like Avarius Sparrow, who was a raw former LBer when they recruited him, is first up at RB after Leddie Brown. He's got some burst and could give them a real second option for the first time since 2018. Tony Mathis also looks like he could take some snaps without killing the offense.

Defensive Infrastructure: Maybe I'm being silly but I'm more concerned about replacing Fields and Smith than Stills. There is a ton of depth on the DL, even beyond what you mention (Jefferson and Thornton have played in the past and should contribute and there are others scrapping for snaps), and if most of it stays healthy they will be fine.

There is still a gap between Holgo's guys and Brown's guys at LB (Brown has struggled to replenish the roster with true LBers for some reason). Dixon could be the answer but Chandler will be the starter out of the gate, the staff was high on James Thomas this spring but he doesn't see to be a serious option for 2021. At Will, it's just a line of former safeties and receivers (Loe, Faiverus, Devell Washington). And I guess we'll see how good Scottie Young is at Spear!

O Speed: Ryan can't beat anybody but he is a good blocker. Isaiah Esdale may be the starter at that outside spot by fall camp. BFW or bust, although Kaden Prather could be an alternate option if he can handle being a contributing true freshman better than Sam James did.

Yates is definitely the GUY at LT but the staff is practically licking its lips at the thought of Wyatt Millum showing up and taking snaps there in the fall.

D Speed: Not much to add here other than Brown picked up Charles Wood from Illinois State. IDK enough to scout his HUDL or anything but his stats suggest a dominant FCS corner. No idea how he translates but as you note, the staff has a good (although short) history with coaching up DBs. He and Matthews will split CB2 duties and he might even be favored to start.

Cowan, Bartlett and Taj Alston should form a quality pass rush if they stay healthy, which is...unlikely. Looks for Taurus Simmons and Lanell Carr to get play time when those three inevitably hurt themselves practicing or breathing.

Lotta words here, I hope y'all don't mind. Thanks for the write up!
Great stuff! I didn't know about Charles Wood, that could be an important pick-up.
 

stilesbbq

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Feels like Brown isnt taking enough advantage of being in close recruiting proximity to the state of Texas deep wealth of talented HS QBs
 

stilesbbq

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Stick draw seems like a concept that Casey Thompson would excel in
 

Ian Boyd

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Feels like Brown isnt taking enough advantage of being in close recruiting proximity to the state of Texas deep wealth of talented HS QBs
Texas QBs don’t go to West Virginia, it just doesn’t happen. Their recruiting hasn’t changed much despite joining the B12 and Brown knows their territory well from being around Kentucky.
 
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cowboypopup

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Texas QBs don’t go to West Virginia, it just doesn’t happen. Their recruiting hasn’t changed much despite joining the B12 and Brown knows their territory well from being around Kentucky.
LOL, yeah. Most players from Texas don't want to go to WVU. When it does get actual players from Texas, like Reggie Roberson and Jovanni Stewart, they end up transferring (for G5 opportunities). And those guys were playing! I guess Jordan Thompson stuck around.

Holgo made a real effort in Texas for a year or two and wisely moved back to the standard recruiting footprint, although he eventually replaced Florida with Georgia. Brown doesn't really go west of Missouri, except for transfers, and he's brought in two of the three highest rated (per player) recruiting classes in modern school history. Also seems to really like European ballplayers. We'll see how that pans out in 2021-2023.
 
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Ian Boyd

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LOL, yeah. Most players from Texas don't want to go to WVU. When it does get actual players from Texas, like Reggie Roberson and Jovanni Stewart, they end up transferring (for G5 opportunities). And those guys were playing! I guess Jordan Thompson stuck around.

Holgo made a real effort in Texas for a year or two and wisely moved back to the standard recruiting footprint, although he eventually replaced Florida with Georgia. Brown doesn't really go west of Missouri, except for transfers, and he's brought in two of the three highest rated (per player) recruiting classes in modern school history. Also seems to really like European ballplayers. We'll see how that pans out in 2021-2023.
Neal Brown wisely sticks to Appalachia.
 
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stilesbbq

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LOL, yeah. Most players from Texas don't want to go to WVU. When it does get actual players from Texas, like Reggie Roberson and Jovanni Stewart, they end up transferring (for G5 opportunities). And those guys were playing! I guess Jordan Thompson stuck around.

Holgo made a real effort in Texas for a year or two and wisely moved back to the standard recruiting footprint, although he eventually replaced Florida with Georgia. Brown doesn't really go west of Missouri, except for transfers, and he's brought in two of the three highest rated (per player) recruiting classes in modern school history. Also seems to really like European ballplayers. We'll see how that pans out in 2021-2023.
Interesting. WVU seems like a fun place to play football with good program investment

Why dont Texas players like WVU? Distance?
 

cowboypopup

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Interesting. WVU seems like a fun place to play football with good program investment

Why dont Texas players like WVU? Distance?
I think that's the primary driver. There are a lot of relatively equivalent programs out there that are closer to home.

Speculatively, I think it's probably not at the top of the list for Texas high school head coaches either when they are thinking of directing their players to a mid-tier P5 program. I have to think those guys are more interested in building and maintaining relationships with coaching staffs at places like, IDK, Arkansas or Baylor than they are WVU.