West Virginia Mountaineers
Head Coach: Dana Holgorsen
2014 record: 7-6 overall, 5-4 Big 12
2014 Bowl result: Lost 45-37 to Texas A&M in the Liberty Bowl
2015 returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense
Odds to win 2016 College Football Championship game: 200/1
Odds to win 2015 Big 12 title: 17/1
Regular season wins: under 7 -135 / over 7 +105
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The West Virginia Mountaineers look to build on their first winning season since joining the Big 12 several seasons ago. The Mountaineers went 7-6 last year including an upset over powerful Baylor and narrow losses to Alabama and TCU. The Mountaineers would go on to lose the Liberty Bowl 45-37 to Texas A&M in a wild shootout.
Fifteen starters are back in 2015 for coach Dana Holgorsen. Despite the strides the program made last year there is some talk that West Virginia must show even more improvement or Holgorsen could be on the hot seat. An 18-20 record in the last three seasons doesn’t exactly make the fans and boosters happy.
Here is a look at the Mountaineers on offense, defense, special teams, plus the schedule and outlook.
Holgorsen serves as his own offensive coordinator. Last year, the Mountaineers averaged 500 yards per game on offense including 317 passing yards. West Virginia was #12 or better nationally in both categories.
Quarterback Skyler Howard took over as the starter late in the season replacing an injured Clint Trickett. The job is Howard’s full time now since Trickett graduated. Howard, now a junior, completed 50.9% of his passes for 829 yards and 8 touchdowns, and rushed for 140 yards on 22 carries in the last 3 games of the season. Sophomore William Crest could also take a few snaps but will serve as the back-up to Howard.
The rushing game was pretty good last year averaging 183 yards per game. However, it could have been a lot better if Pitt transfer Rushel Shell hadn’t battled a severely sprained ankle. He returns in 2015 and looks to stay healthy. He rushed for 788 yards on 176 carries with 7 touchdowns and also made 21 catches for 140 yards. Wendall Smallwood had 148 carries for 722 yards and 2 touchdowns, along with 31 catches for 326 yards. He can line up at either running back or wide receiver. The Mountaineers must replace productive running backs Dreamius Smith and Andrew Buie. The two combined for 135 carries, almost 700 yards and 7 touchdowns. Freshman Donte Thomas-Williams will also get a lot of carries.
Both the top two receivers are gone from last year. Kevin White and Mario Alford are both in the NFL now, White with the Chicago Bears and Alford with the Cincinnati Bengals. The duo combined for 174 catches, almost 2,500 receiving yards and 21 touchdowns. Alford also averaged 28.6 yards per kick return and ran two back for touchdowns. That kind of production will be difficult to replace if not impossible. Jordan Thompson returns after making 49 catches for 598 yards and 2 touchdowns last year. Daikel Shorts had 24 catches for 346 yards and 2 touchdowns. Besides Smallwood and Shell no other receiver had more than 7 catches last season. Shelton Gibson, K.J. Myers, Devonte Mathis, Gary Jennings and Vernon Davis, Jr. will also be in the mix at receiver. The Mountaineers start four wide receivers and don’t use a tight end.
Three starters are back on the offensive line but the line struggled in both run blocking and pass protection last year. Center Tyler Orlosky, left guard Adam Pankey and right tackle Marquis Lucas are all back, but most of the players on the depth chart behind them are freshmen and sophomores.
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Coordinator Tony Gibson gets 9 starters back from a unit that allowed 28 points and 400 yards per game last season. Those numbers aren’t great but fortunately the Mountaineers play in a league where defense is sometimes optional. Gibson has said though that he will be disappointed if WVU doesn’t have the best defense in the Big 12.
It starts up front where two of three starters return. Although nose tackle Kyle Rose could face discipline after being involved in a bar fight in April. He was arrested but hasn’t been suspended or kicked off the team as of this writing. Left end Noble Nwachukwu also returns. WVU only forced 20 sacks last year, something they need to improve on if Gibson wants to reach his goal.
The linebackers will be led by Nick Kwiatkoski who led the team in tackles with 103. He moves from the middle to the strong side because Jared Barber returns from a knee injury. Edward Muldrow is also back but will likely platoon on the the weak side with Shaq Petteway.
All five starters return in the secondary, and the Mountaineers look for improvement. The safeties are K.J. Dillon, Dravon Henry and Karl Joseph. The corners are Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut. Worley missed spring practice with a shoulder injury but should be ready for fall camp.
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Kicker Josh Lambert is a Lou Groza award contender after being a finalist last year. The Mountaineers were #92 in kickoff coverage though and need to improve in 2015. Punter Nick O’Toole averaged 43.1 yards per punt last season. The punt return game was terrible last year even with Alford, and it got so bad sometimes Holgorsen would just let the ball bounce without a punt returner. It isn’t clear who will handle the job. Shelton Gibson will likely handle the kick returns though.
The non-conference schedule isn’t too challenging with home games against Georgia Southern, Liberty and Maryland. October will be difficult with road games at Oklahoma, Baylor, and TCU sandwiched around a home game against Oklahoma State. November brings 3 home games against Texas, Texas Tech and Iowa State, plus a road game at Kansas. The Mountaineers close the season at Kansas State December 5.
The Mountaineers could very easily lose all four games in October and games against Texas and Kansas State are no picnics either. I think it adds up to 6-6 or 7-5 record and a mid-tier bowl.
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