In an effort to make our spring previews more meaningful, and more realistic, we're not only looking at the returnees and newcomers, but also trying to evaluate them in terms of their contributions and experience to this point in their careers. While many players are known by name to most fans, and thus included as automatic contributors or depth additions to the team, that isn't a true reflection of what's on hand. So, much like our annual breakdown of the results of recruiting classes from five years ago, we'll be looking at not only the players at each position, but also at what they have done so far. That should, in part, help determine what reasonable expectations and the next steps in their progressions might be.
Of course, all of this is still speculative – springs and the ensuing season are often filled with players who “come out of nowhere” – and some who return to anonymity just as quickly. With this analysis, though, the goal is to go deeper than a look at mere names and numbers.
We begin this week with quarterbacks, and introduce our classification system of:
Starter: Players with established Division I starting experience
Contributor: Players with significant backup time at their primary position
Unproven: Those with only special teams experience or minimal playing time
STARTER: Will Grier gets the nod as a starter due to his six-game performance as a freshman at Florida. There, he was 106-161 passing (65.8%) for 1,204 yards and ten touchdowns, against only three interceptions. If he can duplicate those rates at WVU, the Mountaineers could have a potent offense. There's a lot to learn, though, and even though he's been in the program for a year, he still has to get used to a new communication scheme -- and forge an effective symbiosis with new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. There's a lot to be positive about as he's evaluated this spring, but keep in mind that he hasn't taken a real snap with a first team offense in 1 ½ years.
UNPROVEN: Chris Chugunov and Cody Saunders are both firmly in this group. Chugunov has a few mop-up snaps, while Saunders' only time was in some mid-week scrimmage sessions. Chugunov looked respectable in a few open Champs Sports Bowl practices in December, and Saunders had a couple of wow moments last spring, but neither has any sort of on-field performance to judge upon. With many observers already yielding the starting job to Grier, this could be the more interesting battle of the spring, and one that will likely continue through fall camp.
WVU will also have walk-ons in the picture in the fall, but none that figure to have the chops to seriously challenge Chugunov or Saunders this year, so the spring is really going to be a focus on the scholarship trio.
One thing is for sure: there will be plenty of snaps available for the QB contenders on hand this spring. With only three scholarship players in the group, a division of raw workload shouldn't be an issue. Of course, there is the matter of splitting up reps among potential first and second team units in order to give each a chance with some of the better players, but there should be a decent amount of chances for all.
The bigger issue is of preparing a QB for the opening game against Virginia Tech. Still looming, although often dismissed by Holgorsen and other WVU sources, is the potential retention of a suspension of Grier by the NCAA for the use of a banned supplement. West Virginia's request for an end to that decree, which could span up to the first four games of the season, is still being pondered (sat upon?) by the NCAA, and a ruling on that isn't expected until the summer. While Holgorsen is reasonably confident of a positive ruling in WVU's favor that would allow Grier to play the entire season, do the Mountaineers have to at least guard against that potential by getting Chugunov and Saunders more work with a potential first team? Or, does that lead the coaching staff to identify a leader between those two in order to give him a bit more work with an eye toward having him ready for game one if need be? Those are tough questions, and trying to cover all the bases could be the biggest story of the spring in the quarterback room.
Another item to watch is the attitude and mindset of Chugunov and Saunders as they battle for what appears to be the backup spot this season. If Grier performs as expected in the spring, and wins the starting job, will they continue to push hard? Will the potential of a starting assignment in September, if the ruling goes against Grier, be enough motivation for them? By indirect accounts, it seems that both are good in the meeting room and with teammates, but that can be a difficult read, especially when they are not allowed to speak to the media.
All this, while important, will be secondary to the main watch of the spring. What does Grier look like throwing the ball in live situations? How much rust is there to remove? How will he meld with Holgorsen and, perhaps more importantly now, new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital? The final answers won't come until September, but the foundation will be laid over the next month.