Three Bold Predictions for Mountaineers in 2019
We started our coverage of the 2019 West Virginia Mountaineers with an offensive wishlist, a defensive wishlist, our top five defensive surprises, and our top five offensive surprises. In between those, we discussed how Head Coach Neal Brown is building a blue-collar team in Morgantown. But as the season inches closer, we wonder how all of this will play out on the gridiron. As we’ve discussed, the Mountaineers have been managing expectations all off-season. And while it’s certainly worthwhile to enter this season with patience given the coaching transition and the resulting attrition, we still present our three bold predictions for the Mountaineers in 2019.
The Defense Performs
Last season, we predicted that the defense would end the season as a top 30 unit. And this prediction rang true until the final two games of the season. But with attrition on the unit, particularly with off-season transfers that significantly weakened the team’s safety depth, surely we wouldn’t double down on the prediction, would we? In fact, we are. After all, these are bold predictions.
But there’s good reason why. First, the days of the 3-3-5 are gone. Vic Koenning replaces Tony Gibson to lead the defense. And Koenning brings with him the 4-2-5. If the scheme sounds familiar, it is because TCU has run it for years. Even Nick Saban uses the set frequently when facing spread offenses. TCU has finished seven of the last ten seasons with a top-40 scoring defense. And they have finished three of those seasons with a top-ten scoring defense. Pretty impressive track record for a team that faces high-flying offenses on a weekly basis.
And then there’s Koenning’s own defensive prowess. Since 2005, Koenning served as Defensive Coordinator for Clemson (between 2005 and 2008), Illinois (between 2010 and 2011), and Troy (between 2015 and 2018). In those ten seasons when he led the defense, his unit finished as a top-30 scoring defense eight times. And his units finished as a top-15 scoring defense five of those eight seasons.
Koenning has undoubtedly maximized the potential of his defensive players, and he has done so quickly. Clemson’s defense improved from 31st to the 11th ranked scoring defense in his first season there. When Bill Snyder hired him as co-coordinator for the 2009 season, the Wildcats improved from the 118th to the 38th ranked scoring defense in one season. In his first season at Illinois, the Illini defense jumped from 96th to 48th in scoring defense. And the Trojans jumped from 113th to 78th in his first season with Coach Brown.
Returning and Emerging Talent
There’s little reason to believe that trend will not continue, even considering the change in philosophy and the attrition at the safety spots this offseason. The staff glows when talking about the defensive line. Koenning has a three-deep up front. And he has never been afraid to bring pressure. Koenning will also rotate at least two-deep everywhere else on the field, too.
Fortunately, he has talent at all of those positions, even if some of it is unproven. Reese Donahue, Dante Stills, and Darius Stills return on the defensive line. Dylan Tonkery, Shea Campbell, Josh Chandler, and Jovanni Stewart return at linebacker. Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey return at the cornerback spots. And Josh Norwood returns to the secondary, after moving from cornerback to safety. Koenning adds several promising newcomers to that list as well. In short, the talent is there for Koenning to develop.
Regardless of circumstance, the last four jobs Koenning has taken, his defensive units have improved drastically in just their first season. On average, those units improve by 46 spots in terms of scoring defense. Considering the Mountaineers finished 2018 ranked 67th in scoring defense, even a modest improvement brings them well within the top 50. But we predict a more drastic improvement. Indeed, the first of our three bold predictions is that West Virginia’s defense will finish as a top-30 unit in 2019.
The Offensive Line Performs
Mountaineer fans and insiders have expressed doubts about West Virginia’s offensive line for months. The unit could have performed much better last season as it was. And now it’s down three big performers. Joe Brown is gone. The New England Patriots drafted Yodny Cajuste. And Matt Jones transferred to Youngstown State.
But all is not lost. Both Colton McKivitz and Josh Sills appear on the Outland Trophy preseason watch list. Michael Brown is improving daily. As is Kelby Wickline. Four of five of those lineman are solid. And Offensive Line coach Matt Moore has an outstanding track record at developing linemen quickly. So whether the next four linemen consist of Chase Behrndt, Adam Stilley, Junior Uzebu, John Hughes, James Gmiter, or others, we’d bet that the starting five, and the next two to three show Mountaineer fans a much more fundamentally sound and gritty unit than they have witnessed the past few seasons.
The extra second such an improved line can buy the quarterbacks increases efficiency. The extra push and pull the guards and tackles can provide will give the Mountaineers’ versatile and experienced group of runnings backs the extra inches they need to explode into the second level. In short, the offensive line will, as is generally the case, make or break this offense. And it hasn’t been often that an offensive line coached by Matt Moore has broken.
As a result, we predict that West Virginia’s offensive line will show vast improvement throughout the season. It can, of course, be hard to measure the impact of an offensive line statistically (without advanced stats anyway). That said, we predict that the improvement will show up in two ways. First, the Mountaineers’ yard per carry average will rise from 4.5 in 2018 to 4.8 or better in 2019. Second, the number of sacks surrendered by the line will decrease from 28 in 2018 to 25 or fewer in 2019.
The Mountaineers Win A Bowl Game
Expectations for the Mountaineers range from three to six wins. Vegas has set the over/under at five, and West Virginia is only a single-score favorite over visiting James Madison to open the season. Many would be surprised to see the Mountaineers clinch a bowl game in the first instance. And given that West Virginia has lost three straight bowl games, and five of their last six, even more would be surprised if West Virginia actually won their bowl game this season.
But the Mountaineers will likely be better than most think. So six wins remains a realistic target for this squad. Brown and staff pulled out all the stops to fill holes on the roster all the way through the Summer. And they are working hard to build the blue-collar, team-first mentality Brown prefers. That blue-collar mentality won’t just stop at the end of the regular season. So we can expect the uninspired bowl game performances of the Holgorsen era to cease. As a result, we predict the Mountaineers will not only clinch a bowl berth but also win their bowl game in 2019.