Since becoming a member of the Big 12 in 2012, the West Virginia football program has basically just been part of the scenery. Like the unremarkable wallpaper in your guest bathroom, the Mountaineers have sort of just hung around.
Not that WVU hasn’t competed reasonably well, mind you. Over four years of Big 12 play Dana Holgorsen’s group has gone 15-21, which, if not particularly spectacular, is not quite an actionable offense either. But in those four seasons, only one, 2014, produced more conference wins than losses. And for any Power 5 program that aspires to greatness, that kind of result won’t feed the bulldog forever.
Thing is, the Mountaineers of 2016 look an awful lot like the Mountaineers we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing over the last four years. And how they look is mediocre.
A goodly number of starters return from what was a serviceable offense in 2015, but there’s just nobody at the skill positions that puts the fear of God into defensive coordinators. Most other Big 12 offenses have more than one gamebreaker.
Defensively West Virginia was very good last season, but only four starters return, and the Mountaineer back seven looks vulnerable. In that respect, the WVU defense resembles a certain unit all Texas Tech fans will recognize.
So this could be a bit of a watershed year for Holgorsen and West Virginia football. 2016, in terms of wins and losses, figures to closely resemble past Holgorsen seasons in Morgantown. If another bout of mediocrity does indeed come to pass, will Holgorsen receive a free pass? Or will the West Virginia brass decide that Holgorsen was unable to capitalize on his opportunity with the program, and likely never will? To put any whispering campaign definitively to bed Holgorsen needs a top three Big 12 finish this season. I don’t see it happening.
Last season the comparatively unheralded Wendell Smallwood led the Big 12 in rushing with 1,519 yards. He then bolted for the NFL draft. But a huge chunk of that yardage should be credited to WVU’s offensive line, and in returning players such as center Tyler Orlosky, and guards Adam Pankey and Kyle Bosch, that offensive line should again be stout.
The prime beneficiary of that line play will be Rushel Shell who rambled for 708 yards last season, after chewing up 788 in 2015.
Shell doesn’t have a great deal of wiggle, but he’s a tough straight-ahead runner who always keeps the legs churning, and because of tremendous effort, powers through some tackles and bounces away from others. He also has enough breakaway speed to extend short runs into fairly long ones.
Assuming Holgorsen rides Shell the way he rode Smallwood last season, the former Pennsylvania high school prodigy could be the Big 12’s surprise back in 2016.
West Virginia lost some darned good football players from last year’s defense. Among them are Nick Kwiatoski, Jared Barber, K.J. Dillon, Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut. With losses such as that, the Mountaineers simply will not be as good on defense this year as they were in 2015. Fortunately for West Virginia faithful however, prime defensive end Noble Nwachukwu returns to provide anchorage.
Nwachukwu led WVU in sacks last year with 8.5, and tackles for loss with 13. That sack total was fifth best in the Big 12. He also recorded six quarterback hurries and 47 tackles overall.
Nwackukwu reminds one of former Texas Tech standout Keyunta Dawson in that he is very strong at the point of attack, and plays with great leverage. He also has tremendous burst for a player of his size and can chase down ball-carriers from the back side. But far from being a pure speed rusher, Nwachukwu is also very effective with the bull rush. He should vie strongly for first team All-Big 12 honors this season.