MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Most years, when you do a season preview, you focus on the players.
This guy’s a deep threat. This guy’s a breakaway threat. This guy can cover. This guy can tackle.
At West Virginia this year, the focus changes. For first time since 2011, Dana Holgorsen is not running the team.
Neal Brown is the new sheriff in town and he comes with impeccable credentials and has made a strong impression on the Mountaineer faithful.
“I was looking for a coach with a proven record of competitive success,” WVU Athletic Director Shane Lyons in introducing Brown. “Coach had a 35-16 record in a four-year period at Troy. He was 31-8 in the last three years. He was tied with Central Florida for the best record in the nation among the group of five.
“He had a conference championship and three bowl wins, so obviously, the competitive success box was checked. I wanted a coach who had an emphasis on academics and NCAA compliance. I needed a quality person with a strong work ethic, and every box that I talked about was being checked by Neal Brown.”
And so the honeymoon began.
Brown said all the right things, noting he was there first “to develop young men,” then “to graduate student-athletes and set them up for their future endeavors.”
Sounds good, but in the end he, like all coaches, will be judged on wins and losses. Brown understands that.
“No. 3, we’re going to win football games,” he said.
The former walk-on receiver from Kentucky launched a two-pronged attack aimed at fulfilling that goal by team building and roster building.
The team building was done in a unique way. The players were drawn together through their own competitions – bowling, musical chairs, a spelling bee. Honest.
A “juice squad” was designated to get practices started off on a high note, everyone gathering around while the energy was passed from one player to another.
And the roster building was done through recruiting and, of course, trial and error – as Brown’s staff had inherited a group of players that was not their own.
The Mountaineers changed the offense, though not dramatically, while the defensive philosophy was completely redesigned from a 3-3-5 to mostly a four-man front.
In the end, of course, the biggest decision was at quarterback with Will Grier gone on to the Carolina Panthers. The Mountaineers went all through camp with Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall on top but not designated the starter – as Jack Allison, a transfer from Miami, and redshirt freshman Trey Lowe III fought for recognition.
A late transfer, Garret Doege, also was impressive and in the mix but by the end of camp, but had not gotten NCAA approval to waive the mandatory year of sitting out.
So how do the Mountaineers stack up?
Here goes ...
Brown comes in with an “Air Raid” background, but soon realized that not only was Grier gone but so were his three top targets – David Sills V, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms.
What he had mostly was a room full of talented running backs capable of going inside, outside and catching the ball – Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield, also a slot receiver.
“Coming out of spring, we realized that we have some talented running backs and we’re going to have to use them in a variety of ways,” Brown said. “We challenged them, particularly Sinkfield and McKoy, to work on their receiving skills and route running during the summer, and I think they’re going to help us in those spots.
“They’re going to give us some versatility in what we’re doing offensively. We can stay in the same personnel groupings and present different formations. I’m pleased with where both of those guys are in terms of learning that, and Pettaway is getting better at it as well.”
The Mountaineer quartet will shuffle in and out all season as, interestingly, all four had 100-yard rushing games last year.
Add that running potential to WVU’s two best offensive players being linemen Colton McKivitz and Josh Sills and it became obvious this team would build off the running game.
The quarterback situation seemed to be pointing directly to Austin Kendall, whose greatest asset is what he’s seen and been part of rather than what he’s done. At Oklahoma, he studied under two Heisman Trophy winners in Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray and learned from maybe the best QB coach in the nation, Sooners head coach Lincoln Riley.
What’s more, Kendall got to see what goes into directing a great offense in a historically winning program, intangibles that all help a quarterback.
“He’s been hungry in his approach to how he’s attacked the playbook,” Brown said. “He’s a student of the game, and he’s got a chip on his shoulder. He wants to prove to college football and to the Big 12 that he’s capable of being a high-level player in this league.”
Brown inherited a depleted receiving corps. Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons is the top returning receiver with just 323 yards and there was a talented, speedy redshirt freshman in Sam James, who made an impression deep.
But Brown needed size at the position and got it via the grad transfer route with Florida State’s George Campbell coming over.
Back in 2015, Campbell was the 26th ranked recruit and fifth-ranked wide receiver by Rivals and the 19th overall recruit and third-ranked wide receiver by 247 Sports. Injuries, however, kept him from reaching his potential at FSU.
“He has a ton of potential, and has been here all summer,” Brown said. “He’s got great energy. Been part of a winning program. New opportunity for him, really a chance at redemption for his career. He’s got a chance to end it successfully.”
Sinkfield is a game-changing performer – be it at running back or in the slot. McKoy might prove to be a big-time player this year after gaining 802 yards last year in a pass-oriented offense.
“He’s special,” running back coach Chad Scott said of McKoy, a senior from Lexington, North Carolina. “He has a phenomenal ability for getting downhill in a hurry. He has the instinctive ability to make people miss, and he has an elite burst. He’s very savvy; he’s special.”
While McKivitz, a preseason All-Big 12 Team pick, and Sills seem to be ticketed for the NFL and are the leaders of the offensive line, the keys may be center Chase Behrndt and guard Mike Brown, an inexperienced mountain of a man who has a tremendous upside, and tackle Kelby Wickline.
“We need those three guys to step up,” WVU offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Moore said after a recent practice. “We need one of them to be great, and the other two need to be good. All three are completely unproven, but we need those guys to really step up.”
WVU never really figured out how to defend the powerhouse Big 12 offenses, especially Oklahoma and Oklahoma State.
Over the past four years, WVU has given up 218 points to Oklahoma, 54.5 per game, and 165 to OSU, 41.3 per game.
Something has to change and the change will be dramatic under new coordinator Vic Koenning, who has scrapped Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense in favor of a more attacking scheme with a four-man front.
The defense, though, is multiple as coaches have looked for versatile players who can handle numerous assignments.
“We would really like for every guy on the defense to have about five things they are really good at technique-wise,” Koenning said. “Then we can mix and match those based on our call system.”
Going from 3 to 4 defensive linemen doesn’t sound like much, but the Mountaineers believe they need nine who can play and plan to do a lot of rotating. There is talent in the D-line, headed by returner Reese Donahue, the Stills brothers and Jeffery Pooler.
They may have landed the secret ingredient in Michigan grad transfer Reuben Jones, who has injected great life into the defense and who can play three different line positions.
“It’s like getting an IV when you’re dehydrated,” Koenning said of Jones. “I feel a lot better watching him run around out there.”
WVU lost safety Kenny Robinson to suspension for breaking school rules. He was supposed to be the centerpiece of the defensive, so the Mountaineers need a boost.
As always, the linebackers and the safeties will probably key the defense as they are given a lot of freedom to make plays and with the likes of Josh Norwood, Dylan Tonkery, Josh Chandler, a sophomore who has drawn rave reviews; Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan, Exree Loe, Zach Sandwisch and JoVanni Stewart moving in and out.
The cornerback position is not deep, which is not good news when putting together a Big 12 defense. But Keith Washington is a budding star at the position.
Traditionally, special teams played a key role for West Virginia until Dana Holgorsen came along.
Todd Sauerbrun was one of the greatest punters in college football history. while Ken Juskowitz and Bill McKenzie slayed Pitt with their placekicking. Pat McAfee carried his art into the NFL. Paul Woodside kicked his way into the WVU Athletic Hall of Fame.
Shawn and Nate Terry, Pac-Man Jones, Willie Drewery and Fulton Walker were great return men.
Well, get ready. Special-teams play is coming back under Brown, the coach says.
“On special teams, we will be opportunistic,” he said. “I view them as offensive opportunities. We led the nation (in 2018), according to ESPN, in special-teams efficiency at Troy, and it’s important.”
Brown showed how important special teams are when, with camp half over, he brought in Australian punter Josh Growden as a graduate transfer from LSU. Growden was used as specialist, punting inside opponents’ territory.
That upgraded a position that was being manned to that point by two untried freshmen.
Hampshire High School product Evan Staley, who made 16 of 20 field goals, is back to do the placekicking.
But it is in the return game, especially on punts, where WVU was among the worst in the nation, that Brown has made significant upgrades.
“It’s a big deal,” Blake Seiler, who handles special teams, said. “Field position is everything. The No. 1 preaching point to the kids is field position on special teams ... what are you going to do with your kicking teams and return teams to gain an advantage there.”
While it seemed to be the crackers that come with the chili in the Holgorsen days, special teams has its own niche under Brown – with an understanding that you win and lose games by executing in the kicking and return games.
“It’s not rocket science, but the closer you get to the goal line to start drives, the better chance you will score, so it’s a big deal,” Seiler said.
And so the likes of Sinkfield and James and Tevin Bush provide dangerous return men who can change games with just one block ahead of them.
Normally, the non-conference games do not really figure to be key games. But for WVU, three non-con games may spell the tone for the season.
On Aug. 31, the Mountaineers open the Brown era with James Madison, maybe the best FCS program to come to Morgantown. James Madison is coached by cagey veteran Curt Cignetti, son of the former WVU coach Frank Cignetti.
JMU won its second FCS national championship in 2016 and is reportedly loaded, which will make the Dukes a test for a WVU team trying to develop chemistry.
The Mountaineers follow that up with a Sept. 7 trip to Missouri of the SEC, which looks like a Top 25 team. Then on Sept. 14, WVU returns to Morgantown to face North Carolina State, from the ACC.
This is a big game for Missouri, maybe even its bowl game, as the Tigers are banned from 2019 postseason for academic violations. An appeal of this punishment is pending.
The Tigers go without quarterback Drew Locke for the first time in five years but may not miss a beat as former Clemson starter Kelly Bryant has transferred in. He led Clemson to the College Football Playoffs in their first year without Deshaun Watson.
Last year’s game at N.C State was cancelled due to Hurricane Florence, so WVU avoids seeing the Wolfpack’s NFL-drafted quarterback Ryan Finley and they N.C State doesn’t have anyone with the same profile.
Of course, the two tell-all games of the season are against the two top teams in the conference, Oklahoma, which replaced its second straight Heisman Trophy quarterback Kyler Murray with another Heisman candidate in Alabama transfer Jalen Hurts, and Texas, which is smoking mad at WVU for last year’s dramatic victory and Will Grier’s “Horns Down” sign flashed at the Texas bench.