When Wendell Smallwood and Daryl Worley announced their intentions to enter the 2016 NFL Draft and forgo their final seasons of eligibility at West Virginia, it wasn't a huge surprise. The decisions of both could have gone either way, so this wasn't a decision out of the blue, or without foundation, as some Mountaineer declarees of the past have been. Smallwood certainly will have a better draft grade than Worley, and Worley's decision may have also been impacted by his academic shortfall that kept him home from the Cactus Bowl, but in both cases there are at least some justifications for the decision to move on.
Now that those decision have been made, the question turns to the effect on West Virginia in 2016. Just how much might these departures hurt next year's Mountaineers? We'll discuss the loss of productivity in a moment, but we'll start with a look at an intangible – that of senior leadership. West Virginia, like most teams with a solid corps of upperclassmen and final year players, benefited greatly from the influence of those seasoned veterans in 2015. Faced with a winless October, this group helped the Mountaineers rally in November, then kept things together during the back-and-forth Cactus Bowl. Of course, the level of opposition also had something to do with that, but there are also teams that have collapsed in similar situations. Those that don't almost always have a strong group of leaders in place, and those are usually veterans – guys that have been through the battles and know that one down day, or a couple of setbacks, don't mean an end to the season.
Making these losses even worse is the fact that both Smallwood and Worley were starters who performed at a high level. There are certainly places for leaders who don't pile up big numbers or get on the field a great deal, but there's also some automatic respect that accrues to those players who do their jobs and do them well. So in that regard, this is a double hit for WVU – they are losing players who might have been the best two on their respective sides of the ball, and also ones who would be the face of the senior class.
The matter of productivity is pretty-much self-evident. Smallwood accounted for 1,679 total yards in 2015. That's 27% of West Virginia's total for the year. His loss also means the subtraction of the toughest runner on the roster – a guy who took on tacklers and routinely squeezed every available yard out of his touches. His last carry in a Mountaineer uniform epitomized that, as he gained 24 yards on a nearly impossible third-and-22 situation to keep West Virginia's final series alive against Arizona State. Without that play, there would be an entirely different outlook heading into the off-season.
Worley's performances produced enough numbers to carve him a spot on the All-Big 12 team, and while he wasn't the most consistent Mountaineer defender, he was good enough to force turnovers and make plays that ended drives. His final career numbers of 146 tackles, 10 interceptions and five pass breakups won't be easily replaced.
In addition to the leadership and performance roles, there are other intangibles that will be missing with their departures. As seasoned vets, neither would be taken by surprise by anything they saw on the field. They'd be able to assimilate coaching tweaks and changes quickly, with a minimum of repetition. They could have helped in relaying what they were seeing on the field to coaches on the sidelines to help formulate adjustments, and again implement them quickly. In all of these areas, the duo will be missed. Younger players may be able to produce in their stead on the field, but it will take a while for them to gain the knowledge and comfort level that allows a player to be a difference-maker in these areas.
This doesn't mean that WVU will be bereft of senior leadership in 2016. Defensively, guys like Jarrod Harper, Jeremy Tyler, Noble Nwachukwu and Darrien Howard will be counted upon. Offensively, Skyler Howard, Adam Pankey and Tyler Orlosky will shoulder a good bit of the load. Josh Lambert will carry the standard for the specialists. But even with several other seniors on the roster, there just aren't a lot of players who have both the on-field credibility and off-field influence and personality to automatically step into those roles. That doesn't mean others can't emerge, but that will be something that will have to play out over spring and fall practices.
Of course, the beauty of college football, or college athletics in general, is that the moving on of players opens opportunities for others. At running back, Rushel Shell and Dontae Thomas-Williams will have the chance to assume the mantle held by Smallwood. At corner, players such as Rasul Douglas and Nana Kyeremeh will have to accelerate their performance. They'll be counted on to fill the gaps on the field, and could evolve into leadership roles. The way will also be open for underclassmen to put together the lessons learned over the past year. There are no guarantees or absolutes either way, of course. History, both inside and outside the West Virginia program, has demonstrated that. In some years, a new crop of leaders develops and slides into place seamlessly. In others, the upperclassmen don't gel, and setbacks occur. It's impossible to predict at this point how 2016 will pan out in those regards, but it is fair to say that the task will be tougher without the pair of bedrock anchors that would have been at the root of next year's Mountaineer squad.