The “Country Roads”-West Virginia football association is one of the top two song-football program associations in all of college football (“Sweet Home Alabama”-Alabama is the other). Of course, West Virginia’s rendition of “Sweet Caroline” is also pretty awesome and probably a top five in this completely arbitrary and made up category, but it isn’t necessarily “family friendly”. Anyway, West Virginia has begun a steady climb back to title contention since bottoming out at 4-8 in 2013. This year they’ll continue that climb, but they won’t summit the mountain just yet.
Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood should be one of the top running back duos in the conference. Both guys topped 700 yards individually, but did only combine for nine touchdowns. With a new quarterback taking the helm, it would be nice if these two could punch in a few more TDs on the ground and take the pressure off of Skyler Howard or whoever else ends up playing quarterback.
Since we just mentioned it, let’s take a look at the quarterback position. Howard seemed to pull away from the pack in spring, and he was pretty good in a backup role and starting the bowl game last year. His 50.9% completion percentage absolutely has to improve, but the fact that he threw zero interceptions in 110 attempts is encouraging, even if it’s an unsustainable interception rate. He also passed for eight touchdowns. Howard’s improvement over the course of training camp and the season will have a massive bearing on what this team’s record is at season’s end.
Howard will also have to find some new targets on the outside with Mario Alford and top-10 pick Kevin White gone. White, the second wide receiver taken in the 2015 NFL draft, was just shy of 1,500 receiving yards last season. Alford was just shy of a thousand himself. Jordan Thompson returns at the Y-receiver position where he was two yards short of 600 receiving yards last season. Daikel Shorts played the other inside receiver position last season, but based on the preseason depth chart it looks like he will be moving to the outside to takeover Kevin White’s former role.
Center Tyler Orlosky should lead a fairly decent offensive line in 2015. Marquis Lucas returns at right tackle where he has seventeen career starts, and Adam Pankey has 13 career starts at left guard. Tony Matteo will have to toughest job trying to replace second team All-Big XII right guard Mark Glowinski. The biggest unknown though is at left tackle where redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste was the favorite to win the job heading into camp.
This defense should be nastier than the Tudor’s Biscuit World “Nasty Chicken”. For those that don’t know, this Morgantown delight is a chicken biscuit covered in sausage gravy, cheese whiz and jalapeno peppers. It’s incredible. Going back to football though, this defense should be pretty difficult to score on, especially through the air.
All-Big XII safety Karl Joseph is back prowling the back end of the defense, and has shown up on a number of preseason All-American lists, including a second team appearance on Phil Steele’s preseason list. He will be helped by the same crew that helped him last season, including “SPUR” K.J. Dillon and cornerback Daryl Worley. These two combined for six interceptions and eleven pass break-ups last season. Dravon Askew-Henry, nee Henry, also returns at free safety after picking off two passes and breaking up two more last season, and Terrell Chestnut will be the corner opposite Worley. He intercepted one pass and broke up seven last season. So yeah, passing on this team will not be an easy task.
Tackling machine Nick Kwiatkoski also returns at his strongside linebacker position. He had 11.5 tackles for loss last season, and depending on where you look he had somewhere between 85 and 100+ tackles. The feel good story of the defense though is the return of linebacker Jared Barber, who missed all of 2014 after suffering a torn ACL against Texas in 2013 and then contracting a MRSA (Multiple Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) infection to make matters worse. MRSA is a life-threatening disease, and it’s great to see him fully recovered and back on the field. Shaq Petteway will play the weakside linebacker position, where he had five tackles for loss and two sacks, again in 2015.
If there is any place that this defense could stand to improve, then it’s the pass rush. With a great secondary, it’s tempting to say you don’t need a good pass rush, but that’s absolutely false. Even a great secondary can’t hang out in coverage all day. The major thing the pass defense might allow is for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson to devote more players to blitzes and come up with some more complex blitz schemes.
The line returns two starters: DE Noble Nwachukwu and NT Kyle Rose. These two put together nine tackles for loss last season, which is respectable, but only two sacks, a number that really needs to go up this season. Christian Brown should step into a more prominent role as the starter at the other end spot. Brown recorded 17 tackles, none for loss, last season as a deep rotation player.
Like I said, this program is back on the rise, but they’re not quite there yet. They have enough defensive ability and offensive talent to scare anyone in the conference on any given Saturday though. They should also get a boost from the best kicking game in the conference with place kicker Josh Lambert and punter Nick O’Toole. Trips to Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU in October will all be tough, but if West Virginia can pull off one upset in that group then ten wins is certainly not out of the question if they can get a bowl win. A trip to Manhattan to play Kansas State in the season finale will also be another tough road game.