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Team Preview: West Virginia

After rebounding with a 35-17 victory against South Florida last week, Maryland (2-1) travels to Morgantown, W.Va., Sept. 26 for a 3 p.m. bout against West Virginia (2-0).

After rebounding with a 35-17 victory against South Florida last week, Maryland (2-1) travels to Morgantown, W.Va., Sept. 26 for a 3 p.m. bout against West Virginia (2-0). The Mountaineers, who are coming off a bye, aren’t a top-25 team yet, but the WVU faithful are encouraged after two games.

Yes, the folks in Morgantown realize West Virginia has beaten up on the likes of Georgia Southern (44-0) and Liberty (41-17), but head coach Dana Holgorsen’s squad boasts more depth and talent compared to last season, when WVU finished 7-6. Now, the Mountaineers probably aren’t going to contend for a playoff spot, but there just aren’t a lot of glaring holes for foes to explot. This is a team that could make some serious noise in the Big 12 if the pieces come together.

Offense

Holgorsen’s signature “Airraid” offense has been a staple for going on five years now, the Mountaineers boasting a coterie of exciting playmakers, from the speedy slot receivers; to the big, physical downfield threats; to the versatile H-backs; to the jack-of-all-trades halfbacks. Terps’ fans are quite familiar with WVU’s style by now, but this season WVU has changed things up a bit from the multi-faceted spread/West Coast of years past.

Traditionally, the Mountaineers would come out with a quarterback in the shotgun, four receivers out wide and a single back. Their goal was to attack defenses with a variety of short, quick passes before going up top when the cornerbacks/safeties bit in. They’d run the ball occasionally to keep defenses honest, but bellies, pitches and draws weren’t exactly highlighted in yellow in Holgorsen’s playbook.

Different story in 2015. For the first time during Holgorsen’s tenure he has a glut of backfield talent at his disposal. Thus, you’re more apt to see a three-wide-two-back set, a two-wide-H-back-halfback look, or a two-wide-tight-end-halfback scheme. So instead of an 80-20 pass-run ratio, WVU is moving closer and closer to a 50-50 split.

Granted, the Mountaineers aren’t about to morph into the Vince Lombardi-led Packers. Holgorsen still has a variety of tricks up his sleeve, centered around those aforementioned quick-strike throws. The wide-receiver screen pass remains in-vogue in Morgantown, the Mountaineers getting the ball to their speedy slots on bubbles; tunnel screens; and even picks. They’ll operate out of trips sets, twins and the like. WVU will also swing the ball to their versatile H-backs and running backs, connect on slants over the middle, and attack downfield with their two outside deep threats.

(It’s also important to note the linemen here. In Mountaineer country, the talk often turns to “splits” up front. Instead of lining up tight like most offensive lines, WVU spreads their trenchmen out, forcing the defensive line to take a step or two away from center. Conceivably, this gives the quarterback an extra beat to throw since defenders will need another step to reach them.)

So far, through two games, the Mountaineers are humming with their semi-balanced attack. The feeling is they’re now better prepared to attack defenses. If opposing coordinators employ extra defensive backs to bracket the receivers, WVU can gut them with the run (see the Liberty game in Week Two). And if opposing coordinators scheme to take away the running game, well, it’s bombs away (see the Georgia Southern game in Week One).

The one major question mark is WVU’s lack of a power game, which has cost the Mountaineers on a couple third-and-short situations. Other than that, folks in Morgantown are excited about the offense’s development.

No, West Virginia hasn’t been tested by an FBS foe yet, so the numbers are somewhat skewed. But they’re impressive nonetheless.

Through two weeks, WVU is averaging 42.5 points per game and 514.5 yards per game (178.5 rushing, 336 passing). Moreover, the Mountaineers have converted 44 percent of third downs, 92 percent of redzone opportunities, and had zero turnovers. They’ve only held the ball about 28 minutes per outing, but that’s more a result of their quick-strike attack than a failure to move the ball.

Quarterbacks

After assuming the starting gig with two games left in the 2014 season, Skyler Howard (Jr., 6-0, 206) has taken the next step as a signal caller. He’s not Dan Marino, and he doesn’t have a rocket arm, but Howard has been on-point with his throws, giving his receivers opportunities to generate yards. Better yet, the sound decision maker hasn’t made any glaring mistakes. When Howard does misfire, it’s typically not in an area where the defense can take advantage, evidenced by the fact he hasn’t thrown a single interception during his four collegiate starts.

As aforementioned, Howard’s not going to unfurl 60-yard deep balls, but he can zip it in-between defenders in the 10- to -15-yard range. He excels at connecting on crossing patterns and intermediate slants, while he’s been known to hit the out patterns as well.

And don’t underestimate Howard’s legs, either. He’s not going to gash defenses like some of WVU’s previous dual-threats, but he can definitely pick up yards on broken plays.

So far this season, Howard has completed 37 of 51 passes for 622 yards and five touchdowns, to go along with 21 rushes for 108 yards (he lost 33 yards on sacks, so his net is technically 75 yards).

Howard’s backup, William Crest (Fr., 6-2, 212), a former Dunbar (Baltimore, Md.) star, sees time as well. WVU has certain packages designed specifically for Crest, allowing him to display his athleticism and speed. Expect him to enter the game for at least a couple plays Sept. 26.

Running Backs

The Mountaineers boast a number of talented runners, but the two breadwinners are Rushel Shell (Jr., 5-10, 224) and Wendell Smallwood (Jr., 5-11, 202), the latter a former Eastern Christian Academy (Elkton, Md.) standout. Shell is more of an inside, power runner, though not in the mold of a true short-yardage back. He’s a one-cut-and-go type who hits the holes hard, gets downhill in a hurry, and packs enough punch to drag defenders. Shell isn’t going to break away, but he’s swift enough to pop into the second or third levels.

Through two games, he has 19 carries for 69 yards and a touchdown.

Smallwood, meanwhile, is one of WVU’s most versatile playmakers. A twitchy runner with soft hands, solid strength and more pure speed than Shell, Smallwood has come on as a back; receiver; H-back; and even as a tight end. Indeed, the Mountaineers like to move Smallwood all around as he presents a matchup problem in space. He’s powerful enough to run through linebackers and fast enough to burst by defensive backs.

So far, Smallwood has 26 carries for 184 yards and three touchdowns. He also has eight receptions for 47 yards.

Also note backup running back Elijah Wellman (So., 6-2, 234), who has become a potent blocker in space. In certain packages, Wellman enters the game as a pseudo-fullback, clearing the way for Smallwood or Shell. He also possesses good hands, flaring out for a pass to give defenses a different look.

The change-of-pace back, Jacky Marcellus (So., 5-8, 182), represents the future of Mountaineers’ football. He’s a true speed merchant who does his best work in space, where his moves and wheels pose a problem for pursuing linebackers. Look for Marcellus to get more touches as the season goes on.

Receivers

WVU doesn’t have Kevin White and Mario Alford -- two NFL draft picks last year – anymore, but this is still a unit that’ll keep defensive coordinators awake at night. Both Shelton Gibson (So., 5-11, 192) and Jovon Durante (Fr., 6-0, 165) can flat out fly, the two clocking in with sub-4.4 40-yard dashes coming out of high school.

The freshman Durante has a ways to go in terms of disguising his routes, running tighter patterns, blocking and defeating jams. But the raw talent is there, and the Mountaineers figure to look to him early and often. Durante, like receivers of WVU past, excels at taking those screens before exploding upfield.

The fleetest of the West Virginia playmakers, Durante has a team-high 10 receptions for 181 yards and two touchdowns so far, including one from 57 yards out.

A Durante clone, Gibson poses the same threat on the opposite side of the field. He’s not quite as fast as his fellow wideout, but the sophomore can take the top off the defense, for sure. Gibson has to work on his route running, while he’s dropped a few catchable balls, but his mere presence forces secondaries to account for him.

Gibson has hauled in six passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns, with a long of 57 yards.

The third wideout, Dakiel Shorts (Jr., 6-1, 201), may not be as speedy as the previous two, but he’s a more refined pass catcher and route runner. The former Eastern Christian star will line up in the slot and out wide, WVU taking advantage of his length; physicality; and shore hands. Shorts isn’t exclusively a possession receiver, however. He can run by linebackers and some safeties, and when the Mountaineers hit Shorts on a slant, he can split the seam.

Shorts has seven catches for 133 yards this year.

The first slot off the bench, Jordan Thompson (Sr., 5-7, 175), has been overlooked throughout his career. That said, he has reliable hands and tends to enter games when WVU needs a key third-down conversion. Thompson’s not especially athletic, but he has sneaky quicks in space.

Tight Ends/H-Backs

Since West Virginia often slots its weapons at a variety of spots, there are several players who could be considered tight ends or H-backs. The backup running back, Elijah Wellman, for example, will sometimes operate as an H-back, giving him the option of blocking a linebacker or swinging around end for a pass.

Wendell Smallwood can also fill a tight end role, moving from the backfield to the line to exploit his pass-catching prowess. He operates as an H-back too, serving as a blocker for Rushel Shell or working into the flats as an underneath receiver target.

The listed starter, though, is Cody Clay (Sr., 6-4, 262), who might be the least dynamic of any WVU skill player. But Clay isn’t asked to be a playmaker. His job, first and foremost, is to block out in space -- and he does it quite well.

The senior, who sometimes acts as a wing back (yes, it’s an old veer option term), is one of the main reasons the Mountaineers are picking up 4.2 yards per carry this season, his blocks helping to spring both Shell and Smallwood.

Offensive Line

There are a couple question marks up front, but, for the most part, WVU’s offensive line is a solid, workmen-like crew that’s supposedly in sync. Although the unit has surrendered four sacks through two weeks, pass protection is considered a strength, despite a couple early-season hiccups.

The Mountaineers have to do a better job drive blocking, however, becoming more proficient opening holes in the A- and B-gaps. While WVU backs are averaging 4.2 yards per carry, the bulk of that has come on outside runs; jet sweeps; and passes behind the line of scrimmage. Ideally, the Mountaineers would like to add the threat of a power-running game as well.

While the majority of the front five returns, West Virginia has a new starter at the line’s most important spot: Left tackle. Redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste (Fr., 6-5, 295) followed up a solid debut by surrendering a sack against Liberty, which is probably a microcosm of what’s to come. Cajuste has loads of potential given his length, build and athleticism, but fact is he’s still learning the game. He only played one year of high school football, so his fundamentals are a work in progress.

Initially, Cajuste may need help from left guard Adam Pankey (Jr., 6-5, 312), one of WVU’s mainstays. A 14-game starter at tackle, Pankey made a seamless transition back to guard this year. He’s considered an all-around blocker who can pick up blitzing linebackers, as well as generate a push up front. Pankey’s not going to blow defenders off the ball, but he’s a solid veteran.

The center, Tyler Orlosky (Jr., 6-4, 296), may be West Virginia’s most prolific lineman. A Rimington Trophy watch lister, Orlosky’s been a starter since the latter part of his freshman year.  He reads defenses well, can open up holes in the run game, and holds up in pass pro too. Orlosky typically gains leverage and has the athleticism to push to the second level.

At right guard is Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch (So., 6-5, 310), who won the No. 1 job during camp. Bosch hasn’t performed poorly, but it’s clear he’s continuing to develop his footwork; hand placement; and awareness. Bosh looks the part; now he has to take the next step.

Finally, there’s right tackle Marquis Lucas (Sr., 6-4, 315), a senior who has jumped around from guard to tackle during his career. An 18-game starter, Lucas works well with his linemates, but he’s not exactly an all-conference type. Lucas is considered a more proficient pass protector than run blocker.

Defense

Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is in his second year, and the sense is the 2015 Mountaineers’ defense is going to hold up much better than the sieve-like 2014 version. Sure, WVU is going to surrender its share of yards/points, but the difference this year is experience and depth. West Virginia feels comfortable running through 16 or 17 defenders, whereas last season they barely had 11 dependable starters.

Just like Mountaineers’ unique offense, the defense is a rather orthodox scheme too. WVU operates out of a 3-3-5 base, but, in reality, they only employ that set about 20 percent of the time. The Mountaineers have so many multi-talented defenders, they often move them all over the field, giving offenses different looks practically every play. Expect WVU’s two safeties to operate both in the box and in centerfield; the strong-side linebacker to stand up and play with his hand down; the Bandit defender to move between safety and linebacker; and the Spur to do the same on the opposite side of the field.

Basically, West Virginia’s defense changes from week to week, and sometimes series to series, depending on what it’s up against. But regardless of opposing offenses, the basic principle is coverage deception, forcing quarterback into mistakes/misreads.

So far the results have been encouraging, although there are more concerns with the defense than the offense. WVU hasn’t generated much of a pass rush (one sack) and has allowed a couple big plays due to mental errors in coverage.

But the Mountaineers have held teams to 298 total yards per game (154.5 passing, 143.5 rushing), generated five turnovers (four picks, one fumble recovery), kept the opposition to a 29-percent third-down conversion rate, and surrendered one redzone touchdown.

Again, as the competition stiffens, those numbers will inflate, but not to the point where West Virginia will have to win a shootout every week.

Defensive Line

West Virginia’s D-Line could potentially become a problem down the line. While the unit excels at stuffing the run (3.4 yards per carry allowed), there are no true pass rushers (one sack in two games). Thus, WVU is forced to generate pressure with its linebackers, leaving certain areas exposed. Neither Georgia Southern nor Liberty were able to capitalize, but superior foes could take advantage.

That’s not to say West Virginia’s down linemen are lacking. In actuality, the group -- three returning starters who know the scheme and play well together -- is performing up to expectations, containing the running game; forcing teams to run outside; and keeping blockers off the linebackers. Just don’t look for them to split double-teams and collapse the pocket.

At weak-side end, Christian Brown (Jr., 6-2, 290) does well in the gaps and setting the edge. He’s not the most sudden defensive end, and he isn’t going to slice by opposing tackles, but Brown holds up at the point of attack; works to disengage; and can funnel backs to the inside.

Brown has six tackles and a tackle for loss so far.

The opposite end, Noble Nwachukwu (Jr., 6-2, 271), is an even better technician than Brown. He possesses sound feet, uses his hands well and doesn’t let guys get into body. Nwachukwu doesn’t excel in any one area, but he’s fairly solid across the board, namely as a run defender.

He has four stops, a tackle for loss, a sack and a forced fumble thus far.

A traditional nose tackle, Kyle Rose’s (Sr., 6-4, 295) impact can’t be measured in stats alone. A true bull up front, Rose is a scrapper who plays with a mean streak. West Virginia’s most potent down lineman controls the line of scrimmage, typically negating the center and guard, while doing his part to corral backs in the gaps.

Rose is second on the team with a dozen tackles in 2015.

Besides the starters, the Mountaineers rotate in at least two more depth players, including defensive end Eric Kinsey (Sr., 6-3, 280) and nose tackle Darrien Howard (Jr., 6-1, 300). An experienced former starter, Kinsey would probably be the No. 1 on many defensive lines. Howard, meanwhile, is a ex-linebacker who has grown into a potent nose guard. When Rose needs a breather, there’s little dropff when Howard enters the game.

Linebackers

The linebackers are practically a mirror image of the defensive linemen, give or take 60 pounds per man. It’s a unit comprised of three fifth-year seniors, all of whom are returning starters. They aren’t the most aggressive pass rushers, nor are they sideline-to-sideline types, but they’re smart (i.e. field awareness, nose for the ball); efficient tacklers; and maintain lane integrity. WVU’s backers are a major reason why the Mountaineers are allowing 3.4 yards per carry this year.

Strong-side linebacker Nick Kwiakoski (Sr., 6-2, 238) is an imposing physical presence who keeps outside contain. He’s adept at making both open-field tackles  and picking through the trash near the line. Kwiakoski struggles some in pass coverage due to shaky drops, but is a potent downhill defender.

He currently leads the team with 14 tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss.

Jared Barber (Sr., 6-0, 232), meanwhile, controls the MIKE spot. A hashmark-to-hashmark defender, Barber isn’t going to run down backs on the edge, nor is he the best at picking up tight ends/receivers that cross his face, but his presence is invaluable to WVU’s defense. Barber ably reads offenses and keys his teammates in, often lining them up in the proper spots. Moreover, he’s a stout run defender in the box and won’t be dragged for extra yards after contact. 

Barber has three tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in two games.

The most athletic of the three linebackers, weak-sider Shaq Petteway (Sr., 6-0, 232) is finally healthy after years of nagging injuries. Petteway’s lateral agility allows him to make plays out on the edge and down the line, while he’s physical enough to get downhill and defeat blocks too. Petteway hasn’t generated a sack yet, but he’s probably WVU’s most effective rusher.  Like Barber and Kwiakoski, however, Petteway could have some issues defending the flats.

He’s recorded seven tackles and a quarterback pressure so far.

When WVU’s trio of seniors graduate, Xavier Preston (So., 6-2, 236) and Al-Rasheed Benton (So., 6-1, 235) are primed to take over. Both are probably ready to start right now, but the Mountaineers are deferring to the upperclassmen -- at least in the early going. Preston and Benton could see more time as the season moves along, especially if they show more athleticism than the current No. 1s.

Defensive Backs

The Mountaineers’ secondary is the defense’s strongest unit, complete with at least three future pros. Through two games, they’ve allowed 154.5 yards per game, surrendered one passing touchdown and recorded four interceptions.

The lead corner, Darryl Worley (Jr., 6-1, 202), could be NFL ready after this season. He’s everything a defensive coordinator wants to see from a lockdown defender, complete with size; speed; short-area quickness; fluidity; hawkish abilities; physicality; and awareness. Worley is adept in both zone and press, jumping routes out of the former and jamming wideouts out of the latter. He’s one of those corners who can take away his side of the field, allowing the safeties to concentrate their efforts elsewhere.

Worley has four tackles and three breakups in 2015.

Terrell Chestnut (Sr., 5-11, 193), the No. 2 corner, has been injured throughout his career, but is 100 percent this season. He’s always had potential, but hasn’t realized it during his tenure in Morgantown. If he can stay healthy, Chestnut has the speed, ball skills and aggressiveness to succeed on the edge. He’s not as good as Worley, but Chestnut’s a dependable Big 12 starter.

Chestnut has recorded eight tackles and a breakup through two weeks.

At free safety, Dravon Askew-Henry (So., 5-11, 202) earned a starting spot as a true freshman, displaying the range; wheels; and in-air abilities needed to hang in centerfield. That said, Henry suffers mental lapses from time to time, biting on play-actions and failing to switch on combo routes. He’s improved since 2014, but has to prove it against top-level competition.

Henry has 11 tackles and an interception thus far.

The “Bandit” safety (short-side safety), Karl Joseph (Sr., 5-11, 200), came to Morgantown with the reputation as a decleater. It’s safe to say he’s more than lived up to it during his length career. Perhaps WVU’s most feared thumper, Joseph simply unloads on running backs and receivers that cross his face. But this season Joseph has taken his game to another level, showing out in pass coverage as well (see: three interceptions). He’s improved to the point where he could work his way onto NFL radars, according to team media.

Joseph’s tallied 11 stops and three picks during his final college season.

Finally, there’s perhaps the most important defensive player: KJ Dillon (Sr., 6-1, 209). Dillon lines up in what is known as the “Spur,” which is kind of like a corner/safety/linebacker hybrid. His responsibility is basically to defend from the box to deep center, while ranging from sideline to sideline.

Needless to say, the Spur has to be quite the athlete, plus possess enough football IQ to read receivers/quarterbacks. The cagey veteran Dillon, who has started 17 games during his career, has ably handled the job for more than two seasons. A fleet-footed  cover man, Dillon excels in pass coverage, offering over-the-top help; switching on and off wideouts; and coming up to defend short/intermediate throws.

Moreover, Dillon can attack the backfield, shooting forward on delayed blitzes. Dillon’s not the best open-field tackler, but his versatility more than offsets that slight deficiency.

Through two games, Dillon has six stops, 1.5 tackles for loss, a breakup and a forced fumble.

Other than the five starters, you might see cornerback Rick Rumph (Sr., 5-11, 185) and safety Nana Kyeremeh (Jr., 5-11, 192) rotate in. Neither are considered starter-level players, but they’re adequate as extra defensive backs.

Special Teams

West Virginia’s two kicking specialists are both potential all-Big-12 performers, and, in fact, both have earned such honors in years past. Kicker Josh Lambert (Jr., 5-11, 212), who is on the Lou Groza Watch List, and punter Nick O’Toole (Sr., 6-3, 216) have been mostly steady. Both are living up to expectations so far in 2015.

Lambert, for his part, has a terrific right leg, with range out to 55-yards-plus. He’s accurate, rarely rattled and used to kicking in pressure situations. Lambert does have one miss this season, but it was a rushed attempt from 54 yards out right before halftime. Otherwise, he’s connected on 5-of-6 boots, with a long of 32 yards.

The punter O’Toole actually had a down season in 2014, shanking a couple kicks that cost WVU the “hidden-yardage” war. But he’s bounced back strong in 2015, averaging 47 yards per boot, including four punts of 50-plus yards.

O’Toole does have a strong leg, but his forte is placing kicks inside the 20-yard line (he has four this season). He has perfected the art of the backspin, dropping the ball straight down and kicking it at the point. The result is an end-over-end punt that caroms backwards (away from the end zone) once it hits the turf.

As far as the returners are concerned, WVU lets KJ Dillon handle punt duties and Shelton Gibson (So., 5-11, 192) bring back kicks.

Why is Dillon back there instead of one of WVU’s speed demons? Simply put, it’s his hands. Last year, WVU had issues muffing punts, so Holgorsen decided it was better

to fair catch rather than risk a fumble. Dillon has returned two punts for 21.5 yards, but don’t expect him to break away or change field position.

Gibson, though, is one of those pure burners. He’s only had one opportunity to show off his wheels, but the sophomore’s a reasonable threat to break out.


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