Big East Preview - Part 6

This is the sixth in a seven part preseason tour of the Big East. I'll continue my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at retooling West Virginia. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

 

WEST VIRGINIA MOUNTAINEERS PREVIEW 

West Virginia is a program in transition.  Near the conclusion of the 2000 season, former Head Coach Don Nehlen resigned after 21 years in Morgantown.  West Virginia alum and former Clemson and Tulane Offensive Coordinator Rich Rodriguez replaced Nehlen.  The transition wasn't easy as Rodriguez's aggressive, high tech, rapid-fire philosophies supplanted Nehlen's tough, methodical, conservative culture.  Rodriguez employs a spread offense that will use the QB as a running threat, as at Clemson with Woody Dantzler.  Rodriguez has already replaced his defensive coordinator and will now employ an unusual "3-3 stack" scheme ala Mississippi State.  While Rodriguez may have inherited the job he wanted, he didn't inherit the players he needed to run his systems.  The Mountaineers have experienced a high turnover of players from the resulting culture shock.  West Virginia plummeted to a 3-8 (1-7 Big East) record last season for a 7th place finish in conference.  In his first season, Rodriguez lost more games than Nehlen ever did.  Here's a look at the retooling Mountaineers of West Virginia.   

 

OFFENSE

West Virginia lost only 4 starters from a unit that struggled terribly in its new system with personnel not entirely suited to run it:   

  • 21 points per game (#6 in the Big East and #89 of 115 in Division 1A)
  • 346 yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #80 in Division 1A)
  • 181 rushing yards per game (#4 in the Big East and #36 in Division 1A)
  • 164 passing yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #96 in Division 1A)

2nd Team All-Big East Sr RB Avon Cobourne (267 carries for 1,298 yards and 9 TDs plus 23 receptions for 124 yards) returns as the centerpiece of the Mountaineer offense.  Cobourne's consistent production provided stability during an unstable season.  Reliable backup RB Cooper Rego (22 carries for 141 yards and one TD) departed.  RS Jr RB Quincy Wilson (25 carries for 181 yards and one TD) will backup Cobourne.  The spread offense has rendered the FB position virtually non-existent at West Virginia.  However, the presence of Cobourne alone in an offense ideally suited for his abilities automatically gives West Virginia one of the best backfields on the conference. 

West Virginia lost only one starter – RG Brad Knell – off an OLine that provided solid run blocking but shaky pass protection.  The Mountaineers return RS Sr LT Lance Nimmo, RS Sr LG Ken Sandor, RS Sr C Zach Dillow, and RS Jr RT Tim Brown.  RS So RG Jeff Berk will replace Knell.  Although the Mountaineers lost only two OL off the two-deep (one starter and one backup), the second team is inexperienced because Rodriguez only employed an 8-man rotation last season (i.e., two starters also served as backups).  Only backup LT RS Jr Ben Simmons, who Rodriguez moved to backup C, has any substantial experience.  The transition from Nehlen to Rodriguez was felt worse on the OLine as many of Nehlen's big road graders left the program because Rodriguez favors smaller, more agile OL.  The starters are experienced but West Virginia still can't fill a three-deep and half of its OLine roster consists of redshirt freshmen (5) and true freshmen (2). 

With the implementation of Rodriguez's spread offense, West Virginia exchanged its FBs and TEs for WRs.  There were growing pains because the Mountaineers lacked the quality depth for such an expansion.  West Virginia lost two starters off this suddenly essential unit – WR Antonio Brown (31 receptions for 291 yards and one TD) and WR Shawn Terry (29 receptions for 291 yards).  Two little-used backups also departed.  The Mountaineers return leading receiver RS Sr WR A.J. Nastassi (42 receptions for 334 yards and 3 TDs) and RS Sr WR Phil Braxton (26 receptions for 282 yards and 2 TDs).  Rodriguez will have to plug the holes in his starting lineup with backups who caught less than one pass per game, JUCO transfers, or freshmen.  So WR Miquelle Henderson (4 receptions for 24 yards) distinguished himself in spring camp and likely will move into the starting lineup.  JUCO transfer and former Big 12 Newcomer of the Year Jr WR Travis Garvin will likely win the fourth starting WR job.  Expansion and departures will leave the Mountaineers inexperienced on the second unit.  True freshmen – led by J.T. Perry – may see substantial playing time.  As with the FB, the TE has been virtually eliminated from the Mountaineer offense.  RS Jr TE Tory Johnson (5 receptions for 63 yards and one TD) will be a minor contributor. 

Inconsistent and ineffective QB play has hindered the West Virginia offense for the past two seasons.  The Mountaineers lost two-year starter Brad Lewis (135 of 237 for 1,339 yards, 7 TDs, and 9 INTs), who was a gritty leader but poor passer.  Former backup QB RS So Rasheed Marshall (41 of 79 for 327 yards, 2 TDs, and 4 INTs plus 48 carries for 210 yards and 3 TDs), who missed half of last season after breaking his wrist in the season opener, will replace Lewis.  RS Fr QB Danny Embrick will be the backup.   

 

DEFENSE

West Virginia lost 5 starters from a pressure defense that couldn't stop the run and subsequently was redesigned: 

  • 24 points per game (#6 in the Big East and #51 in Division 1A)
  • 350 yards per game (#6 in the Big East and #40 in Division 1A)
  • 213 rushing yards per game (#7 in the Big East and #104 in Division 1A)
  • 137 passing yards per game (#1 in the Big East and #1 in Division 1A)

West Virginia lost only one starter – DT Antwan Lake (26 tackles and 3 sacks) – from a DLine that was second worst in the conference.  The Mountaineers will switch to a three-man DLine this season.  Returning starters include RS Sr NT David Upchurch (66 tackles and 4 sacks) and RS Sr DE Kevin Freeman (41 tackles ).  Former backup DE Sr Jason Davis (30 tackles), a starter two years ago, will likely start opposite Freeman.  RS Sr DE Tim Love (17 tackles and one sack), RS Fr NT Ernest Hunter, and RS So DE Ben Lynch (6 tackles) will likely be the backups.  Downsizing a DLine that previously was weak against the run is a curious strategy in the smash-mouth Big East conference. 

The conversion from a 4-4 defensive scheme to a 3-3 stack defense will actually increase the size of the West Virginia LB corps because former Defensive Coordinator Phil Elmassian essentially operated his 4-4 scheme from a nickel defense (i.e., safeties played the two OLB positions).  West Virginia lost two starters from its LB unit -- 2nd Team All-Big East and leading tackler ILB Kyle Kayden (159 tackles , 2 sacks, and 2 INTs) and OLB Shawn Hackett (113 tackles and one INT).  Former starting ILB RS Jr Grant Wiley (98 tackles, 2 sacks, and one INT) and former starting DE RS Sr James Davis (51 tackles and 8 sacks) will be switched to their more natural OLB positions in the new 3-3 stack defense.  Former backup ILB RS Sr Ben Collins (33 tackles) likely will replace Kayden as the starting MLB.  So MLB Shane Graham (15 tackles) is the only experienced backup.  Led by Wiley and Davis, the LB unit will be the heart of the Mountaineer defense but, as with the DLine, their depth is very suspect. 

Though the secondary theoretically has expanded with the implementation of the 3-3 stack defensive scheme, Rodriguez has plenty of experienced DBs to man the secondary because Elmassian played DBs at OLB last season.  Those DBs will now be playing further off the ball as safeties.  West Virginia lost two starters from a secondary that statistically was the best pass defense in the nation last year.  2nd Team All-Big East FS Rick Sherrod (156 tackles and one INT) and CB Richard Bryant (45 tackles and 4 INTs) have departed.  Former starting OLB RS Sr Angel Estrada (69 tackles, 2 sacks, and one INT) will be switched to the SS position.  Former backup OLB RS Jr Arthur Harrison (20 tackles) likely will start opposite Estrada at weak safety.  Former backup FS So Jahmile Addae (18 tackles) and former backup OLB RS So Lawrence Audena will battle for the starting FS job.  Except at FS, the backup safeties are inexperienced and several true freshmen could break the two-deep.  Co-starters RS Jr CB Lance Frazier (49 tackles), RS Jr CB Brian King (34 tackles), and RS Sr CB Lewis Daniels (23 tackles) return and give the Mountaineers experience and depth at CB.  RS Fr CB Anthony Mims likely will be the other backup. The secondary appears to be the deepest and most experienced unit on a defense lacking depth and experience.  However, true freshmen may also see action in the secondary.   

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

Special teams suffered substantial losses as 2nd Team All-Big East PK Brenden Rauh (13 of 15 FGAs and 25 of 25 XPAs) and 2nd Team All-Big East KOR Shawn Terry (26 yards per return) departed.  Jr PK Todd James, who kicked-off and punted last season, will replace Rauh.  RS Sr WR Phil Braxton or RS Jr WR Michael Page will replace Terry at KOR.  RS Jr PR Lance Frazier (8 yards per return) will field punts again this season.  With James assuming PK duties, former two-time 2nd Team All-Big East P Mark Fazzolari, who struggled last season after too many blocked punts necessitated a switch from a three-step punt to a two-step punt, will likely reclaim his job.  But, should Fazzolari struggle again, James will punt, too.   

 

SCHEDULE

West Virginia has a full 12 game schedule with only 6 home games.  The Mountaineers play once on a Wednesday night – at Virginia Tech – after a bye week.  West Virginia has another bye week in mid-September.  In their present state, the Mountaineers face a very challenging non-conference schedule with three bowl teams – Cincinnati, East Carolina, and Maryland – plus perennial powerhouse Wisconsin.  The home schedule has two key games – East Carolina and Maryland.  The road schedule offers two promising opponents – Rutgers and Temple.  Consecutive home games against East Carolina and Maryland, followed by a road game at Rutgers, are the key stretch in the West Virginia schedule.   

August 31

Chattanooga

September 7

@ Wisconsin

September 14

@ Cincinnati

September 28

East Carolina

October 5

Maryland

October 12

@ Rutgers

October 19

Syracuse

October 26

Miami

November 2

@ Temple

November 9

Boston College

November 20

@ Virginia Tech

November 30

@ Pittsburgh

 

PREDICTION

I predict another long year in Morgantown as West Virginia finishes 2-10 (1-6).  The non-conference schedule will be their undoing.  As will the Mountaineer rush defense.  Wisconsin should rebound from a disappointing season and the Badger running game will overwhelm the Mountaineers at Camp Randall Stadium.  Cincinnati is coming off a bowl season and playing at home.  That should be enough against a West Virginia team treading water.  East Carolina is also coming off a bowl season but lost a lot of talent.  However, the residual talent and superior offensive firepower will enable the Pirates to pull the upset in always-difficult Morgantown.  Maryland won games last season with defense and a running game.  ‘Nuff said.  The Mountaineers will be very fortunate to win more than two non-conference games. 

Complicating the non-conference schedule, West Virginia is staring down the shotgun of a possible conference O-fer.  West Virginia gets no breaks on the home schedule as Miami, Boston College, and Syracuse visit Morgantown.  The Mountaineers are gong to need some serious help from the home crowd to win even one of these three home games.  West Virginia travels to Rutgers and Temple – its opposition for the Big East cellar.  West Virginia repeatedly has struggled at Rutgers despite repeatedly romping in Morgantown.  And Rutgers has out-recruited West Virginia the past two years.  But the Mountaineers will spread Rutgers' defense and then beat the Scarlet Knights with the running of Cobourne, Wilson, and Marshall.  Meanwhile, Temple won in Morgantown last year and the Owl rush defense will force the shaky West Virginia passing attack to carry the day.  It won't.  Temple will win.   

 

Coming Next:  Big East Preview, Part 7.  I'll finish my pre-season tour of the Big East with a look at struggling Temple.  I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.   

Please send any comments to bump86@earthlink.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.


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