The Mountaineers open the 2018 football season in less than fourteen days. Patience wears thin, and the hype continues to build. To accelerate that hype further, this series, broken into three parts, makes five bold predictions for the Mountaineers this season. Without further ado, here are the first three.
#5: T.J. Simmons is the Second-Best Receiver on the Team
As discussed in this article, the redshirt sophomore will post a big season for the Mountaineers in 2018. Just how big can T.J. Simmons’ season be, though? The first bold prediction for the Mountaineers’ 2018 season is that T.J Simmons will be the second-most-productive receiver on the team this year.
Bleacher Report ranks West Virginia’s receiving corps as the best in college football for 2018. Athlon ranks David Sills as the number two receiver and Gary Jennings as the number 21 receiver. Notably, Athlon does not mention Simmons in its list of breakout receivers. One can surmise that Simmons is overlooked because the depth ahead of him is so talented. That does not mean, however, that Simmons should be forgotten.
According to the coaching staff, Simmons is simply too talented to keep off the field. Quarterback Will Grier raves about his receiving talent, listing Sills, Jennings, and Simmons as the three receivers with the best hands on the team. One Alabama writer even called Simmons’ ability to track and bring in passes “superhuman.”
This year, Simmons has one advantage that his fellow receivers do not; he is being overlooked and does not have opposing coaches’ full attention, yet. Simmons certainly had Nick Saban’s attention at Alabama, as he played all season as a true freshman. Though Simmons will not have this advantage for long, his unique combination of size, strength, and dexterity will transform him into a trustworthy big-play receiver. As a result, Simmons will post the second-highest yardage total for all receivers on the Mountaineers in 2018, at worst. Yes, he will finish above Jennings and above Simms.
#4: The Tight Ends Combine to Catch at least Seven Touchdowns
Head Coach Dana Holgorsen and Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital have incorporated the tight end position into the offense for this season. And, Mountaineer fans will believe that when they see it. Believe it or not, however, the position will have a huge impact on the offense. The offense, of course, was the bright spot for the 2017 Mountaineers’ season. Nonetheless, it disappointed in one critical area; ranking 111th in 3rd-down conversion rate.
That statistic is mind-boggling considering the offense’s scoring proficiency. Yet, when fans think back on the way the offense got its points, it makes sense. Before his injury, Grier led the nation in long touchdown passes. Unfortunately, this was the hallmark of the 2017 offensive unit; it lived and died by the long ball. In fact, while NFL scouting reports on Grier are generally positive, most scouts agree on this point; Grier needs to rely less on the long ball and more on his other outlets. The tight ends will help solve both problems.
West Virginia has at least four healthy tight ends on the roster for this season. Senior Trevon Wesco is 6’4, 274 pounds. While he has only been modestly used to date, Grier in particular raves about the improvements Wesco has made coming into fall camp. Miami transfer Jovani Haskins is 6’4, 245 pounds and brings tremendous athleticism to the position. Grier is sure to let anyone who asks know that Haskins’ hands are fourth best on the team, just behind Sills, Jennings, and Simmons.
The Mountaineers also have a pair of freshmen who could see time at the position. First, the Mountaineers have four-star true freshman TJ Banks, who stands at 6’5 and weighs in at 253 pounds. Second, the Mountaineers have former minor-league baseball player Jesse Beal. The 28-year-old, 6’6, 262 specimen brings a different kind of maturity to the locker room. Both bring size, strength, and athleticism to the position.
The Mountaineers’ tight ends have combined to catch only a single touchdown pass over the past two seasons. Yet, this season, Spavital will run a lot of his third-down, short yardage, and goal-line sets with at least one tight end on the field. And, Grier will not hesitate to use them. As a result, the tight ends together will catch at least seven touchdowns.
#3: Kenny Robinson Doubles His Turnover Total
Last season, the Mountaineers really missed Rasul Douglas. In 2016, Douglas had eight interceptions and forced one fumble. Last season, Kyzir White forced more turnovers, four, than anyone else on the defense. Kenny Robinson was a close second with three, all interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. The defense as a whole forced six less turnovers in 2017 than it did in 2016.
Fortunately for Tony Gibson’s defense, Robinson was a true freshman last season. The former WPIAL defensive player of the year and All-State Safety, Robinson was forced to play cornerback last season due to injury and attrition. This year, the promising defensive back returns to his natural position, free safety. Robinson is an opportunistic ball-hawk who likes to use his deceptive speed to spy the quarterback and disrupt passing lanes at the last second. The return to free safety will allow Robinson to do just that. He will roam the defensive backfield looking to break on the ball and hand the game back to his offense.
Gibson will certainly welcome the additional turnovers forced. One statistic the Mountaineers regressed in last season was turnover margin. The Mountaineers faltered to a -7 margin after they climbed to +3 in 2016. Robinson’s six interception minimum this season will go a long way to putting the Mountaineers back in positive territory.
Stay tuned for parts two and three of five bold predictions for the Mountaineers this season.