0-3. That was the Mountaineers record without Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Will Grier. His finger injury against Texas ended a promising season. For the Mountaineers to contend it is imperative Grier stay healthy and a defense that allowed 6.1 yards a play improves.
Despite missing two full games and part of the Texas game, Grier finished fifth nationally in pass efficiency (162.7), eighth in yards a game with 317.3 and eighteenth in completion percentage at 64.4. He posted one of the best seasons in program history throwing for 3,490 yards with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions en route to earning Big 12 Newcomer of the Year after transferring from Florida. Miami (Fla.) transfer Jack Allison battles true freshman Trey Lowe for the backup job after last years backup Chris Chugunov left the program.
Leading rusher Justin Crawford departs leaving the tandem of juniors Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway. McKoy, 596 yards, and seven touchdowns is the lead back with Pettaway, 149 yards, and two touchdowns, seeing an increased role as a between the tackles runner.
The Mountaineers boast one of the best receiving duos in the conference and maybe in the country with seniors Gary Jennings and David Sills. Jennings is the leading receiver with 97 receptions, fourth in the country, for 1,096 yards, eighteenth in the country, but only found the end zone once. Sills was the polar opposite finishing with 60 receptions for 980 yards and a whopping 18 touchdown, most in the country. Ka’Raun White and his 1,004 yards and 12 touchdowns are replaced by juniors Marcus Simms, 35 receptions for 663 yards and five touchdowns, and Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons. Converted quarterback senior Will Crest should see action.
NFL prospect senior offensive tackle Yondy Cajuste anchors a line that returns four starters. The 6’5 318lbs Cajuste teams with 6’7 306lbs junior Colton McKivitz. On the inside returning starter sophomore Josh Sills teams with first-year starter senior Isaiah Hardy at guard. Returning starter junior Matt Jones at center rounds out the group. Kelby Wickline, Tyler Thurmond and brothers Mike and Joe Brown provide depth.
The defensive line suffered a huge blow when starting nose tackle Lamonte McDougle announced his intent to transfer. Kenny Bigelow, a 6’3 300lbs graduate transfer from USC, is in line to replace McDougle but has to fend off promising sophomore Darius Stills. Senior Ezekiel Rose is slated to start at one end while returning starter junior Reese Donahue is slated to start at the other spot. Look for highly touted true freshman Dane Stills, the younger brother of David, to see time at the end.
Despite the loss of leading tackler Al-Rasheed Benton, 110 total tackles, junior David Long, 75 total tackles and 3.5 sacks, returns to lead the linebacker corp. Senior strong-side linebacker Quondarius Qualls and key backup Brendan Ferns both suffered ACL injuries. Junior college transfer Charlie Benton is likely to replace Qualls. Rising sophomore Dylan Tonkery, a converted safety, is slated to start in the middle. He posted 38.5 tackles, seven for loss and 2.5 sacks.
The secondary must replace starting corners Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle, who combined for 17 pass breakups and one interception, along with second-leading tackler safety Kyzir White a second-team all-conference honoree. Senior Drevon Askew-Henry moves over from bandit to spur with first-year starter senior Toyous Avery moving to bandit. Junior Hakeem Bailey, 33.5 tackles and six PBU’s in 11 games, takes over at one corner spot. Former safety Derrick Pitts, eight tackles, competes with sophomores Jake Long and Sean Mahone for the other corner spot. Sophomore Kenny Robinson, 39 tackles, four for loss, 3 PBU’s and three interceptions start at free safety.
Kickoff specialist sophomore Evan Staley battles Western Kentucky transfer Skyler Simcox at kicker. Senior punter Billy Kinney returns after averaging 40.9 yards a punt with 20 downed inside the 20-yard line.
With a healthy Grier, the Mountaineers should be favored in most if not all of their first seven games. The closing stretch- at Texas, TCU, at OSU, Oklahoma- is tough and decides if this year’s Mountaineers team is a pretender or a contender.