A VERY PUBLIC NOT-FIRING
Since entering the Big 12, West Virginia has been shaky and fun (for us neutral observers, anyway). Despite wacky geography and a lack of local rivals, the Mountaineers have been a wonderful fit in the Conference of 70-63 Games, and while most teams have trended towards pass, pass, pass, Dana Holgorsen keeps slipping in more and more run while maintaining the blistering tempos and spread-‘em-out-edness with which we’re all familiar.
Now it’s time for my usual refrain: the Big 12 with its round-robin format is a hard conference to excel in. West Virginia has seldom been bad (2013’s 4-8 record was an outlier) but it’s also never been great. Since joining the Big 12, Holgorsen’s results average out to 6.5 wins and 6.25 losses.
It’s understandable, at least, why West Virginia’s administration ruminated about firing him, in an awkwardly public fashion. And after 2013 or 2014, it may have been justified . . . but West Virginia was a lot better in 2015 than the 8-5 record might indicate, save for two problems: first, they lost safety Karl Joseph (the blood and guts of the defense), and second, they had no answers when the other team was clearly more talented.
Four losses right in the middle of the season, by an average score of 37.3 to 24.5, against the Big 12’s top four teams. Other than that, West Virginia mostly took care of business save for an unfortunate second half at Kansas State. They blasted average and bad teams and beat Arizona State in its backyard to earn a bowl win.
If one believes the reports leading up to Holgorsen’s not-firing, West Virginia wanted eight regular season wins. The Mountaineers face the task of trying to reload on defense in an offensive league, which puts the onus on an experienced offense (retuning almost everyone save for one glaring omission in Wendell Smallwood) to keep pace.
According to my glorious helpers at cfbstats.com, quarterback Skyler Howard’s numbers for quarters one through three: 58% passing for 23 touchdowns, ten picks, and 8.9 yards per attempt. Not great, but serviceable, especially when the running game is clicking (and it usually was).
Howard’s numbers in the fourth quarter and one overtime period: 41% passing for three touchdowns, four picks, and 3.6 yards per attempt. Yowzer, buddy.
Now, passing stats tend to go down in the fourth quarters of games, especially if the quarterback is playing from behind and is forced into a lot of passing situations. But this is a bad dropoff. At this pace, that many incompletions doesn’t do anyone except the other team any good.
The plus side: Howard enters this season with his three favorite receivers. Shelton Gibson provided all the explosiveness you could have asked 11.1 yards per target. Note, that’s per target, not catch. Make it per catch and it hops up to 24 yards per. The reason those numbers are so far apart is because he caught less than half of his targets. There are a lot of potential causes for this; namely, these sorts of numbers (both Howard’s and Gibson’s) suggest a lot of 500 balls. But maybe consider some stick-um on the gloves this year.
Fortunately, there are two other much more reliable options. Daikiel Shorts Jr. and Ka’Raun White were far more reliable and more efficient. Mountaineer fans hope they can improve on their chemistry with Howard, and get a little better at grinding out drives rather than depending on the boom-or-bust. When a team has an efficiency option at running back like Smallwood, you tend to take more shots downfield as the defense cheats up, but Smallwood is gone.
Replacing him is Rushel Shell, who led West Virginia in rushing in 2014 but saw fewer carries in 2015 as Smallwood excelled. Like Smallwood, he’s a dependable option for grabbing four or five yards at a time but he’s never been great at finding space. He’ll have an experienced line paving the way for him, and West Virginia gained an intriguing transfer in former four-star Michigan H-back Michael Ferns to help open things up as a lead blocker and short-range target.
But really what the Mountaineers need is to finish games out. Last season that fell squarely on the shoulders of Skyler Howard, and will do so again in 2016. He has to be better in the fourth quarter.
A LOT TO REPLACE ON DEFENSE . . .
. . . but West Virginia quietly has been pretty darn good defensively for a few years now. DC Tony Gibson espouses an aggressive style which took the run almost completely away from opponents. Only Baylor and TCU were able to crack the armor, combining for 5.9 yards per attempt. Everyone else: just 3.5.
And the core of that run defense is back. Ends Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown and nose tackle Darrien Howard all return to stuff opposing ball carriers anew. Nwachukwu was particularly disruptive: in a unit great at stuffing the run but only so-so at generating pressure, he sacked opposing quarterbacks eight times.
But nobody better get hurt. While this unit is talented, it’s not very deep. West Virginia’s roster shows only just four backups, one a redshirt freshman.
What will hurt West Virginia is the need to replace four ridiculously productive linebackers. Linebacker stats tend to inflate a bit but replacing a combined 35 tackles for loss, eleven sacks, three picks, and eleven breakups doesn’t just happen.
All hope is not lost: new faces MIKE Al-Rasheed Benton and SAMs Xavier Preston and Justin Arndt played in all thirteen games in 2015, and WILL Sean Walters played in twelve. There’s a four star freshman on the bench in Brendan Ferns (yep, brother of the aforementioned Michael). I don’t worry too much about this unit despite the losses, Gibson has gotten stellar play out of his linebackers in recent years. Like the defensive line, however, this unit is not deep.
At least the secondary is! Like the linebackers, they have to account for the loss of a trainload of production. Chief among their losses is Karl Joseph, who picked off four passes in just five games before his injury.
Joseph led a trio of Mountaineer defensive backs who were selected in the NFL Draft, which speaks to the quality of play Gibson and Holgosen have been getting out of their secondary in recent years. The defensive line will maintain, the linebackers will reset, but the secondary looks to reload. Dravon Askew-Henry led the unit with 53 tackles. (And if you’ve got someone whose job it is to knock down passes, don’t you want him to be named “Askew”?) He’ll lead a unit stocked with experience and depth.
DON’T KICK TO SHELTON
Shelton Gibson averaged a stunning 32.8 yards per kickoff return, and his teammate Jovon Durante managed a similarly wowing 22.6. The punt returns were decidedly less impressive. Placekicker Josh Lambert was an almost sure thing inside the 40, then things got dicey. Hopefully the offense will be moving him a bit closer to the uprights this year.
Last year the Mountaineers took care of business against seven of the eight teams over which it had a talent advantage, and the rest ate its lunch. While I trust the defense, the offense has to get more efficient.
The Mountaineers have an interesting non-conference matchup with BYU, who might test this defense early on, as well as a mid-October matchup with a Texas Tech team which will test this offense’s ability to keep pace. Road matchups against Texas and Oklahoma State are basically toss-ups.
Like in 2014, Kansas State, TCU, Oklahoma, and Baylor all come to Morgantown. That year West Virginia gave all four everything they could handle, including handing Baylor a 41-27 rout that kept it out of the Playoffs. I’m pretty high on Oklahoma, and higher than most on TCU, but West Virginia can handle Kansas State and Baylor is kind of a wild card this year.
I like Dana Holgorsen. From my view a thousand miles from Morgantown I think he seems a good fit for the culture and he produces generally good teams that are fun to watch on both sides of the ball. Whatever amount of wins and Red Bull it takes to keep him around, I wish it for him.