Maturity, continuity present for WVU
By JIM BUTTA
For The Times Leader
MORGANTOWN – Veteran West Virginia University head football coach Dana Holgorsen has a number of reasons to believe this year’s edition of the Old Gold and Blue will be much better than the ones he led during his first seven seasons in Morgantown.
The first is a very simple one.
“Maturity, more than anything,” Holgorsen explained. “I’m much more comfortable with what I’m doing. I go back to last year, being in a little different role last year, this conversation could last a long time as far as we weren’t exactly where we wanted to be last year at this point in time. I didn’t know how game day was going to go. For me, it was just because it was a different role and all that.
“We’ve got a lot of continuity with the coaching staff. We’ve got a lot of older, mature players. Just from an overall maturity point of view, I think this team is light years ahead of many of the teams I’ve had since I’ve been here.”
That maturity begins under center with the return of redshirt senior quarterback Will Grier. But, it doesn’t end there as the Mountaineers bring back three of their top four receivers from a 7-6 season a year ago – Gary Jennings Jr., David Sills V and Marcus Simms – left tackle Yodny Cajuste, right tackle Colton McKivitz, and left guard Josh Sills.
“We understand continuity, and we appreciate continuity,” continued the coach. “It’s becoming a rare thing in college football, whether it’s an entire new coaching staff or, we’ve had to deal with replacing a whole side, or six position coaches or whatever it is. We understand, we know, and we appreciate continuity, and we understand that we have a very mature group. There’s a lot of excitement within us. There’s been times where I didn’t really want vacation to end; we were all excited when vacation ended. We were all ready to get to work.”
Defensively, junior Reese Donahue returns to anchor the Mountaineers’ front three while redshirt junior David Long Jr. and redshirt sophomore Dylan Tonkery are back at linebacker. In the secondary redshirt senior Dravon Askew-Henry is back as well as sophomore Kenny Robinson, and redshirt senior Toyous Avery Jr.
“I’ve had a lot of talks with them (the players) and all that; all we’re focused on is game one. With that said, we understand it’s a long, long, long season, so get ready to do things the right way for a long time because four months goes quick, but there’s a lot that happens in four months.”
The first thing Holgorsen and his staff must accomplish before the Old Gold and Blue take on SEC member Tennessee at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday, Sept. 1, is fill a number of holes on both the offense and defense.
Offensively, redshirt junior Matt Jones returns after starting all 13 games in 2017. However, redshirt sophomore Jacob Buccigrossi had a strong spring performance and elevated above Jones for the starting center’s job.
Looking to replace 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford as WVU’s primary running back will be juniors Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway while redshirt freshman Alec Sinkfield made some noise in the spring and could make it a three-way battle this fall.
Rounding out the offensive battles redshirt senior Trevon Wesco appears to be locked in a battle with redshirt sophomore Jovani Haskins for the starting tight end job while a pair of redshirt sophomores – Logan Thimons and Elijah Drummond – are in a tight race at fullback.
Should offensive coordinator Jake Spavital elect to go to a four-wide receiving attack, look for Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons to be on the field.
On the defensive front look for senior Ezekiel Rose and sophomore Darius Stills to fill the holes left by the departures of Lamonte McDougle and Adam Shuler while redshirt sophomore Charlie Benton is locked in a battle with Morgantown native Shea Campbell for the starting nod at Sam linebacker.
The starting cornerbacks in WVU’s 3-3-5 alignment are changing daily, however, and may continue to be fluid against the Vols.
“Right now, it’s (redshirt junior cornerback) Hakeem (Bailey), (sophomore cornerback Derrek) Pitts (Jr.), (redshirt junior safety Joshua) Norwood, (redshirt junior cornerback Keith) Washington, (redshirt sophomore cornerback) Jake Long and (redshirt junior cornerback) Jordan Adams,” veteran defensive coordinator Tony Gibson explained. “Those guys are doing a heck of a job. I’m pretty pleased with them right now, and, with our receiving corps and our quarterback, they’re getting really good work in every single day. I love the way they’re competing and trying to get better. They’re playing within the scheme, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence right now.”
Redshirt sophomore Evan Staley comes into the fall as the team’s placekicker and kickoff specialist while redshirt senior Billy Kinney goes into the season atop the depth chart at punter and holder.
Looking to take over as the team’s long snapper will be redshirt junior Rex Sunahara – son of WVU volleyball head coach Rex Sunahara – is holding off redshirt sophomore Kyle Poland for the job.
In the return game look for Simms and Jennings to be the team’s primary kickoff return threats while Sills will look to team up with Simms to give the Old Gold and Blue a solid one-two punch on the punt return unit.