With the addition of Head Coach Neal Brown, Mountaineer fans have shared plenty of excitement over the past six months. Indeed, Brown brings a fresh approach, mixed with youthful exuberance, to the modern era of Mountaineer football. And as we wrote here, fans never truly embraced former Coach Holgorsen, as his hiring was botched from the beginning. So replacing him with an open, warm, blue-collar up-and-comer was the perfect move. And after the Spring Game, which was one of the highest-attended in Mountaineer history, fans’ excitement reached fever pitch. Over the past several weeks, however, we have watched the Mountaineers managing expectations carefully.
Lyons Urges Patience
Indeed, Athletic Director Shane Lyons recently held a media briefing to recap the “State of the Union” of WVU sports. Lyons opened his remarks about the football team with praise for Coach Brown. Even though he has not coached a game, Lyons told media that Brown is “on the right track.” He echoed what all of us have heard and written from and about Brown. Lyons said Brown is “working hard and building a great culture.” The locker room also “believes in” Coach Brown. The early recruits who have committed to the team’s 2020 class should be included there as well. And the team atmosphere has been splashed across social media for months.
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) June 27, 2019
— West Virginia Football (@WVUfootball) June 12, 2019
But Lyons reminds fans that there has been some turnover in the program. Indeed, the Mountaineers placed several players into the NFL through draft and free agency, as we discussed here. Will Grier is gone, as are Gary Jennings, David Sills, and many others. The Mountaineers also lost several players through common attrition, both inside and outside the transfer market. And while the sky is indeed not falling in Morgantown, the Mountaineers face depth and experience issues at several key positions.
Lyons noted, in particular, the need to remain healthy on the offensive line and the attrition at quarterback and wide receiver. But Lyons exercised restraint in his remarks, cautioning that “[w]e all have to be realistic here.” Indeed, Coach Brown often uses the hashtag #trusttheclimb in his tweets. And while many fans have interpreted this as a call for patience, Coach Brown has indeed told the media that he expects his team to be great. His only question is when.
Analyzing the Roster
While Lyons’ remarks have not been well received by many fans, still others understand and appreciate them completely. The Mountaineers have lost a lot of production, especially in the passing game. But compared to the remarks made by Lyons, a detailed look at the roster offers some surprising glimpses of hope.
The Question Marks
While a starting quarterback has not yet emerged, the quarterback room is filled with three different four-star players. The competition is by no means finished, and that competition should challenge at least one of those quarterbacks to raise his level of play. Regardless, this is the least experienced group on the teams in terms of returning snap count.
The safety group is also a big question mark, with Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts both leaving the squad this summer. The position returns only one player, Jovanni Stewart, with a significant snap count (over 650). So while there is young talent waiting in the wings, the experience is lacking, even though the staff could move one or more of the cornerbacks back to safety to help resolve this issue.
Wide receiver is the next-thinnest position on the roster, with only two players returning with over 100 snaps. T.J. Simmons looks to emerge as the leader of this group. Sam James and Florida State five-star transfer George Campbell offering potential game-breaking talent. But the group, as a whole, is unproven.
Finally, the offensive line does need to stay as healthy as Lyons suggests for the Mountaineers to produce results. But the situation is not quite as dire as many suggest. In fact, the offensive line is the most experience collective group on the team, with five returning players tallying over 100 snaps (three with over 300). Beyond the starters, questions do remain. But some highly-rated players are patiently waiting for their chance. And of the positions where there are question marks, this group offers the quickest answers.
The remaining position groups offer mostly positives to the overall roster. Three cornerbacks with over 450 snaps return. Josh Norwood, Keith Washington, and Hakeem Bailey each gained substantial experience in 2018 and offered glimpses of brilliant play. Behind them, Dreshun Miller shows significant promise.
The Mountaineers return three linebackers who played over 150 snaps in 2018. Behind those three stands Charlie Benton, who was injured in the season opener, but not before he was named a starter for the team at linebacker. Indeed, the prior staff praised Benton so heavily that we named his as one of our five defensive surprises last summer. Finally, VanDarius Cowan, whom we named one of our top returning linebackers in the Big XII, should earn significant playing time after transferring from Alabama and sitting out last season.
Of the two deepest positions for the Mountaineers’ roster in 2019, only one should surprise. Indeed, the running back group returns three players who tallied over 200 snaps each, and a fourth, Alec Sinkfield flashed a unique skillset before fighting through injury. Lyons joked that Coach Brown focuses too much on this group when reciting the positives aspects of his team. But Brown does so with good reason, as each of the top three running backs carry multiple 100-yard games in their logs. Kennedy McKoy even made our list of top five returning running backs in the Big XII.
Believe it or not, however, the defensive line also offers significant returning experience. We named Dante Stills as one of the best returning defensive linemen in the Big XII, and he racked up nearly 200 snaps as a true freshman last season. His brother, Darius Stills, saw action in every game and offered solid play in his nearly 300 snaps in 2018. Reese Donahue also returns for his senior season.
Mountaineers Managing Expectations
As a whole, Lyons is more right than he is wrong. He is simply ensuring that the Mountaineers are managing expectations. Undoubtedly, transitions pose challenges. Some players have and will buy into Coach Brown and the staff’s brand of football. Others will not. Under the best conditions, it would take time for the team to adjust to the nuances and preferences of this new staff, especially on the defensive side, as Vic Koenning looks to replace the 3-3-5 with the 4-2-5. But there are some early holes in this roster. And while the talent is there to fill those holes, those players are not yet experienced. As a result, this team might take its lumps early. But it also might not. Coach Brown has certainly not given up.
— Neal Brown (@NealBrown_WVU) June 5, 2019
And fans shouldn’t either. In fact, West Virginia fans, of all people, should know how dangerous an oft-overlooked Mountaineer team with a chip on its collective shoulder can be.