For all the talk about how pass-happy Dana Holgorsen is, don't be surprised if this year's West Virginia team is another story in balance. Gone is Charles Sims, one of the Big 12's top backs, but with some lingering questions at quarterback and a deep group of running backs, it wasn't any surprise to see the Mountaineers rush 42 times for 200 yards in the spring game, and that's without Dreamius Smith (5-11 224), who didn't play in the spring game but who sits atop the post-spring depth chart at running back.
To be fair, Clint Trickett (6-2 175), who was the post-spring leader at the quarterback spot didn't play either. And in Paul Millard (6-2 230), JUCO transfer Skyler Howard (6-0 200) and Logan Moore (5-11 198), the Mountaineers did get some strong play out of the position in the spring game. Millard was 14-of-19 for 129 yards and two touchdowns, while Howard and Moore are more mobile options.
West Virginia also looks like it's making another step forward at receiver, with Kevin White (6-3 208) and Daikiel Shorts (6-1 197) scoring touchdowns and explosive 'X' Mario Alford (5-8 174) taking back a kickoff to the house. Just a couple of years ago, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey struck fear into Big 12 defensive coordinators whenever the Mountaineers came into town. And while they aren't quite back to that point, they do have dangerous weapons at each spot.
Defensively, Holgorsen was quick to note that the first-team defense held down the Mountaineer offense before they left the field, and they appear to be especially stacked on the back end, particularly with cornerback Daryl Worley (6-1 200) holding Alford, who could emerge as one of the Big 12's top wideouts, to two catches.
Holgorsen has talked about how well Trickett has taken to the offense in his second year after transferring from Florida State, and that's why he's atop the depth chart. He'll have a stacked group of running backs (more on them in a minute) and a wide receiver group that includes a big, strong threat in White and a blistering speedster in Alford. Quinton Spain (6-5 342) is a nice piece to build your offensive line around at guard as well.
But the main place for a jump might be on defense, where the Mountaineers lose defensive linemen Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell, and safety Darwin Cook, but return key pieces, and have added to their depth, seemingly everywhere else. Linebackers Isaiah Bruce (6-2 232) and Brandon Golson (6-2 230), 'Spur' (safety/linebacker) K.J. Dillon (6-1 207), Karl Joseph (5-10 194) at safety and Worley at cornerback give them some guys who have been through the Big 12 wars, and who could take major steps up this season. That's not counting Ishmael Banks (6-0 180), who started 12 games at corner a year ago but was tested in the spring. The point? West Virginia took its lumps on that side of the ball, and brings back a number of players who could emerge as impact guys. Look for Worley, in particular, to be among the league's best cover corners.
It speaks to the talent and depth that West Virginia has at running back that they could add a former five-star prospect in Rushel Shell (6-0 218), a player who rushed for 641 yards as a freshman in 2012, and that he exited the spring third on the depth chart at the position. Make no mistake: Shell will factor in. And when he does, it could cost Wendell Smallwood (5-11 202) some carries. But West Virginia isn't going to let Smallwood, who rushed for 221 yards as a freshman a year ago, get pushed off the field, so he'll likely see some time at inside receiver.
Howard isn't likely to beat out Trickett, but once Howard gets more time in the offense, he could make things interesting because of his mobility. He has a chance to be pretty good once he gets everything down.
Defensively, Nick Rose (6-4 293) was a starter at defensive end a year ago, but has moved inside to nose guard to take over for the departed Rowell. And key an eye on linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton (6-0 238), who supposedly had a big redshirt season and is now on the two-deep at 'Mike'. Benton might not start with so much experience at linebacker, but he'll push for serious time.
In Case You Missed It
Tony Gibson hasn't been defensive coordinator since his time at West Virginia Tech back in 1999-2000. But that's the role he finds himself in after coaching at West Virginia from 2001-2007 and coming back to coach with the Mountaineers a year ago as safeties coach. That's not to say he isn't accomplished — GIbson was recruiting coordinator at West Virginia under Rich Rodriguez, and Rodriguez thought enough of him to name him assistant head coach at Michigan. Now, he'll inherit a defense that has some experience, despite just three seniors on the post-spring depth chart. Gibson will run a 3-3-5 that basically looks like a 3-4 with the 'Spur' position basically playing a safety in the box as another linebacker. Simplicity was the name of the game in the spring, with Bruce telling Scout.com's BlueGoldNews.com that it was nice to focus on playing one linebacker position after rotating through multiple spots a year ago.
You might have picked up on a theme at this point: West Virginia is really solid at running back. It's impressive that the Mountaineers are at this spot even after losing Sims, a dynamic threat as both a runner and receiver. Coming out of the spring Smith was ahead of the pack, though many people seem to feel like Shell could be the runner with the most potential, and Smallwood will have his place as the best receiving threat. Options No. 4 and 5 coming out of the spring involve the Mountaineers' leading rushers in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Dustin Garrison (5-8 180) is fully healthy after a knee injury suffered at the end of a 2011 season that saw him rush for 742 yards and six touchdowns. Andrew Buie (5-9 188) led the team in Garrison's absence in 2012, rushing for 851 yards and seven touchdowns. When those are your No. 4 and 5 guys, you're pretty deep.
The scary part? None of that counts top recruit Donte Thomas-Williams, a four-star, 220-plus pound back who will join the team this summer from Hillside (N.C.), nor does it count bruising fullback/H-back Cody Clay (6-4 256), one of the Big 12's better blocking backs.
With Trickett appearing to have the quarterback spot more locked down than it was a year ago, the easiest thing to place a finger on is the lack of a pass-rush. A year ago, West Virginia had a Big 12-low 10 sacks in its nine conference games, a horrific number considering WVU faced the second-most passing attempts in league contests. Four of those sacks came courtesy of Golson, who's back. But the Mountaineers have to find a way to generate a more multi-dimensional pass-rush, a must in a three-man front that doesn't typically depend on the defensive line to create pressure and sacks.
Playing Bruce at one position, at 'Sam' should help, as could the addition of Edward Muldrow (6-3 206), a transfer from Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) C.C. who had 7.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks a year ago. He's listed as Bruce's backup.
Increased depth will lend some aid, but this is where Gibson will have to earn his money. He'll have to find creative ways to generate pressure and take some burden off a secondary that should be good, but not good enough to hold up if quarterbacks have all day to throw.
Important Recruit Yet To Enroll
He's not really a recruit, but West Virginia found out in the past week they'd be adding Pittsburgh defensive back Cullen Christian to what already appears to be a pretty salty DB group. It marks Christian's third career stop, though it's worth noting that at each one, he's followed Gibson, West Virginia's DC. And while he didn't play much at Pittsburgh, Christian is a big enough talent that he was No. 3 cornerback nationally coming out of high school. And he may fit Gibson's 3-3-5 system better, where he plans to play the 'Spur' position, a safety-linebacker hybrid. Dillon is expected to start at that position, but as one of the spots that can be used to generate pressure, fresh legs is a great thing.
As far as actual recruits yet to enroll, it's unclear how many immediate-impact players the Mountaineers have that still have yet to check in. Jaylon Myers will be one of the few to have a shot at a starting job. The Hutchinson C.C. transfer has the size to play as a bigger corner, but will probably push for the safety spot opposite Joseph. And Justin Scott, a JUCO transfer from Pierce (Calif.) College could add depth to the offensive line, even if he is unable to win a starting spot.
It's tough to tell what to expect from these 'Eers. On one hand, the offense was still semi-effective last year even with quarterbacks completing just over 50 percent of their throws. There's a lot of potential for growth there, especially as West Virginia's skill players continue to come into their own. And with a back seven on defense that has improved depth and talent, the Mountaineers have a shot to be better defensively as well.
But it's unclear just how high the Mountaineers can climb without strong line play. True, this is a team that sent a serious challenge into a Texas team that tied for second last year. But it's also a squad that was defeated handily by Kansas. The lack of impact talent up front is the most frightening thing … can West Virginia protect Trickett or its other quarterbacks? And even with Rowell and Clarke, the Mountaineers allowed 4.7 yards per carry and hardly harried opposing passers in league play. West Virginia could be improved, but it's unclear just how high their ceiling goes. At the high end, there's probably bowl potential. But on the low end, the bottom of the league could be calling.>
Up Tomorrow: TCU