In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel. In this edition, the quarterbacks get the once-over.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
The most buzz since the spring was generated by the transfer of Will Grier, who is not eligible to play this year as he sits out the mandatory year after departing from Florida. While Grier's arrival spurred a lot of talk and apparently settled the starting QB spot of succeeding years in the minds of many, it won't have much of an effect on this year's competition. Cody Saunders, who was an early enrollee, showed some promise in his limited spring outings in view of the media, but he isn't ready to mount a challenge to either Chris Chugunov or William Crest just yet. He shouldn't be counted out in the open race for next year – but we have plenty of time to talk about that over the winter and spring of 2017.
Of more immediate effect, the transfer of David Sills did open up the competition in the quarterback room just a bit, but it was becoming clear that the Mountaineers saw him as a receiver, not a passer. That didn't fit with Sills' vision, so he has moved on in his search for playing time behind center. While that weakend WVU at wideout, it didn't have an effect on the QB room.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen and graduate assistant Michael Burchett will continue their shared duties with the QBs. While this might appear a bit unconventional, it's something that Holgorsen has done in the past, most notably with GA Jake Spavital at Oklahoma State. Also, it's not that rare for an offensive GA to work with QBs as a means of understanding the offense as a whole, and Burchett should be on solid footing as he enters his second year working with the triggermen of the offense. That's not the limit of his experience, though, as he has already been a GA or in a student coaching role for five years.
Having a younger GA to talk and work with could also be of benefit to the quarterbacks, who clearly have a lot of pressure on them. Working with the top guy, no matter how good the relationship, can be a bit frazzling, and having a second coach to talk and work with provides for an outlet. Certainly, Burchett isn't going to coddle anyone, but the benefits of two sets of eyes and ears on the position might be better than just one.
There should be very little question as to communication and understanding between Holgorsen and Howard. During the spring, Howard looked very comfortable and polished in getting the offense set and running. The job this fall will be to develop the same with the backups, especially with the one or two that wind up being the guys who travel and directly back up the Mountaineers' senior starter. That's where evaluation and communication between Burchett and Holgorsen becomes so important. What does Burchett like about the QBs in drills? How will practice reps be split? How does William Crest's play at other positions change the mix? It's here where coaching will have its biggest impact in 2016.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
Barring unavailability of the starter, most of this will be dependent upon the improvement of Howard from a year ago. The determined QB was solidly in the middle of the Big 12 statistics in 2015, and with just a little more accuracy and a few less overthrows, he could ascend to the upper echelon and make West Virginia a potent offense this year.
Howard had 14 interceptions and completed 54.8% of his passes in 2015. Drop the picks to say, eight, and increase the completion rate to 60%, and he would move up in the league rankings – and more importantly, give WVU an even better chance of winning games. While those improvement goals might seem a bit high, they are attainable. Just one fewer interception in every two games, and 21 more pass completions on the season (given the same number of attempts), and he's on the mark. That's just 1.6 more completions per contest.
Can he achieve that? The thought here is yes. Howard may never put up gaudy stats, but he's a gritty competitor that does anything it takes to win. He won't hesitate to scramble with the ball, as his 502 rushing yards a year ago attest, and getting him to slide and protect himself is like asking Evel Knievel to avoid risky ventures. He goes all out, and while that occasionally might lead to a bad result, his performance this spring gives hope that he can meld a bit more accuracy with all of that competitive grit and become even better than he was a season ago -- a year in which he was undervalued and underrated.
Who wins the backup job? That, in addition to Howard's improvement arc, is the question dominating the minds of many observers. Might it be a multiple choice answer, though?
On WVU's pre-fall depth chart, Chugunov is listed at number two, while Crest is third. However, there are several points to keep in mind when looking at that order. First, Crest is clearly in the plans as an offensive slash weapon, to be employed in the backfield or as a slot receiver. Does that contribute to his placement on the QB chart? Chugunov, in public displays, did throw the ball a little more consistently than Crest during the spring, but he also had his share of mistakes, so it wouldn't be hard to view this as a still very-viable competition.
Second, there's the issue of when the back-up is needed. Say Howard gets dinged in the middle of a game. Would the coaches go with the player that got the most snaps in practice that week? Would it be Crest, who has a repertoire of running plays from the QB position that would help WVU be a bit more diverse? Or would it be Chugunov, who might have a better chance of moving the team through the air only?
The answer could be different if WVU knows that Howard would not be available for a game a few days prior. Would that affect the Mountaineers' preparations for the week, and allow them to go in a different direction than if they had to make a snap decision in the middle of a game? Of course, the coaching staff will have thought all of this out prior to the season, and have a framework in place, but it might be something that changes from week to week, with the strengths of the opponent or game situations coming into play.
Like most QBs, Howard is a lightning rod for criticism, but he handles that unfair aspect of the game very well. If he can remain on that even keel, even in the face of adversity, West Virginia will be in very good hands this year – and there's no reason to think that won't be the case.
Other Fall Outlook Previews
|Offensive Line||Wide Receivers||Running Backs||Tight Ends and Fullbacks|