Around the time West Virginia University’s preseason football camp began a few weeks ago, I wrote in this space about the many questions surrounding the Mountaineers for the 2019 season.
There have not been many definitive answers to the majority of those questions — in fact, there may be more questions now than there were two weeks ago — but the makeup and attitude of this team is starting to show itself.
So, for the purpose of this column, let’s look through some, but certainly not all, things about this WVU football team that I think provide a reason for some optimism and others that, with a little more than two weeks before the first game, appear to be red flags for these Mountaineers.
Let’s start with the good:
n The receivers might be pretty good.
After spring ball, West Virginia’s receivers were not in a good place. Ask Neal Brown. He’ll tell you about how he was not at all pleased with how that group performed. Fast forward a few months and the conversation has drastically changed.
Redshirt freshmen Sam James and Bryce Wheaton hit the weight room this summer and have been good so far in camp. Newcomers like George Campbell, a graduate transfer from Florida State, have given the group a boost in on-field experience. Graeson Malashevich, a walk-on from Spring Valley High, has been making people — the media and coaches specifically — take notice during camp, and fellow walk-on Freddie Brown has made some plays too.
Throw in sophomore running back Alec Sinkfield as an occasional option in the slot and you can see why the conversation around the WVU receivers has changed since the start of camp. The receivers could have been a major cause for concern for WVU in 2019, but it appears that group could be much better than anticipated just a few weeks ago.
n The kids could be all right.
There are not a lot of places on the WVU roster where the Mountaineers will have to rely on freshmen, but there have been some West Virginia newcomers who have shown that if they’re needed in a game they should be up to the task. Malashevich will see the field on special teams and will likely be an option in the slot as well. Seniors Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey have the top spots at cornerback locked down, but there are a handful of freshman — Tae Mayo, Nicktroy Fortune, Tacorey Turner and Naim Muhammad — who have the coaching staff feeling pretty good about the depth at cornerback.
At safety, former Capital High standout Kerry Martin, a quarterback in high school, will help provide some depth at free safety while Tykee Smith has made the move from spear to free. Both will play and give Josh Norwood, a former starter at cornerback who made the move to free safety for this season, decent backup options.
n Running backs remain solid.
At the start of camp, there was a lot of talk about how the running backs were probably the position group playing at the highest level for WVU, and I don’t think much has changed there. Each one has shown he can play well in the past, and getting those guys involved in the passing game — especially Kennedy McKoy and Sinkfield — makes the West Virginia offense more versatile.
Obviously they all can’t play at the same time, and finding ways to get them on the field at the right times will be important, but teams with multiple running backs capable of playing at a high level have fared well in the past. Ask Oklahoma State about Barry Sanders and Thurman Thomas, or Auburn about Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams or Southern California about Reggie Bush and Lendale White.
Whoever is carrying the ball for WVU this season, the Mountaineers should be in good hands.
And now, the not so good:
n Still searching for a starter at quarterback.
I can’t read Brown’s mind, but I can’t imagine he is too enthused about the current state of the quarterback room. Graduate transfer Austin Kendall was brought in, presumably, to be the starter. Brown gave the other QBs on the roster the opportunity to push Kendall. The former Oklahoma backup has not been very impressive, and the guys behind him — Jack Allison and Trey Lowe — have not done enough to take the job from him.
That leaves the Mountaineers a little more than two weeks out from the opener against James Madison with just as many questions at their most important position as there were going into camp. Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege’s immediate eligibility seems unlikely at this point. So who is it going to be?
The job still appears to be Kendall’s to lose, but that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement. Kendall and Allison have been taking the bulk of the first-team snaps, but Brown said after Saturday’s scrimmage he was pleased with how Lowe played with the second team. My hunch is Kendall gets the start against JMU, but don’t be shocked if you see all three get some snaps in the opener. Another hunch: the longer this thing goes on, the better Lowe’s chances are.
n Offensive line other than Josh Sills and Colton McKivitz.
Maybe throw senior Kelby Wickline in there with Sills and McKivitz as guys up front who appear to be ready to play a lot of snaps on the offensive line in the Big 12. Other than those players, however, the line should be a cause for concern if you’re a Mountaineer fan.
Center Chase Behrndt has been OK at times, but also was called out by name after Saturday’s scrimmage for getting beat consistently by defensive linemen. Guard Mike Brown is a great story, but is he ready for significant playing time at this level? The natural talent that guy possesses is pretty clear to see, but he is still very raw. There are some younger players to provide depth and perhaps even push for more prominent roles on the offensive line, but the play we’ve seen so far behind Sills, McKivitz and Wickline leaves a lot to be desired.
Remember, the things I just pointed out are only positives or red flags right now. There is still a lot of preseason camp left, which means there is time to iron out some things. Players not mentioned here are sure to impress or regress over the next few weeks. Also remember the Mountaineers have been pretty fortunate when it comes to preseason injuries with no major maladies to report so far. A lot can change in a few weeks. Don’t get too hyped or too panicked ... yet.