It is never easy being the “guy after the guy” in football, and for the West Virginia University offense, this season will be a test in that regard.
More specifically, the Mountaineers will have the “guys after the guys” in key positions all over the offense. There will be a lot of new faces in new places, and even some recognizable ones in new places.
In 2018, the West Virginia offense was packed with talented upperclassmen as the Mountaineers remained relevant in the race for a place in the College Football Playoff deep into November. Quarterback Will Grier was in the Heisman Trophy conversation for most of the season. Receivers David Sills and Gary Jennings are both in NFL camps right now. Tight end Trevon Wesco was drafted by the New York Jets. Left tackle Yodny Cajuste was drafted by the New England Patriots.
After spring practice, there were still many questions surrounding who exactly would be the player to step into those vacated roles for WVU. Now, with preseason camp finished in Morgantown, we have a better idea who those players might be.
Let’s take a look at the Mountaineers offense as the team begins game week preparations for the season opener next Saturday against visiting James Madison.
Grier’s 2018 season was, simply put, one of the best ever by a WVU quarterback. That will be a tough act to follow. This week, first-year head coach Neal Brown named Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall the Mountaineers’ starter for the season-opener. That does not mean Kendall is set in stone as the starter all season, with Jack Allison, Trey Lowe or, possibly, recently eligible Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege behind him on the depth chart.
This is the one area with plenty of returning experience on the WVU offense. Brown has had especially good things to say about senior Kennedy McKoy and sophomore Alec Sinkfield, but senior Martell Pettaway and sophomore Leddie Brown have also shown an ability to produce yards and touchdowns. As far as talent goes, it is not a stretch to say West Virginia is loaded at running back for 2019. True freshman Tony Mathis is pretty good too, but with so much experience and talent in front of him it should not come as a shock if he takes 2019 as a redshirt season.
Fullbacks and tight ends
Fullbacks at WVU? You read that correctly, but it comes with a twist. Brown’s offense uses what is called an “S” back — basically a tight end who lines up in the backfield and has some fullback-like responsibilities. Expect juniors Logan Thimmons and Western Michigan transfer Jackson Knipper to get some time at that spot.
As for tight ends, the preseason camp was not exactly kind to the Mountaineers at that position. Presumed starter Jovani Haskins was limited in camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and also could still face disciplinary actions from the team after being charged with three misdemeanors stemming from a July 28 incident in Morgantown. Redshirt freshman T.J. Banks was also limited in preseason camp, which opened the door for fellow redshirt freshman Mike O’Laughlin to get a bunch of repetitions in practice. If Haskins is healthy — and all indications are he will be ready to fully participate in practice as soon as this weekend — and not in Brown’s doghouse, he can be a difference maker at tight end for WVU.
Sills and Jennings are the marquee names gone from the 2018 team, but the loss of Marcus Simms will also be a tough one to replace. Brown was admittedly not enthused about the receivers after spring practice, so he brought some new players in. Florida State graduate transfer George Campbell was a five-star recruit out of high school but was hampered by injuries for much of his time with the Seminoles. Temple transfer Sean Ryan has made some waves in preseason camp but is still waiting to hear back from the NCAA on a waiver request for immediate eligibility.
Junior T.J. Simmons, who can play inside or outside, played behind Sills, Jennings and Simms last season and should provide some leadership for this group. Redshirt freshmen Sam James and Bryce Wheaton were solid in preseason camp and should see plenty of playing time in 2019. WVU also has Isaiah Esdale, who can play inside, along with Tevin Bush, Ricky Johns and Randy Fields as players who can push for playing time at receiver. WVU is much deeper at receiver now compared to in the spring, but the makeup of the group — who plays where and how much — could depend in part on Ryan’s eligibility.
First-year offensive coordinator Matt Moore is also West Virginia’s offensive line coach, and he has said he would ideally like to have 10 players he can plug in on the offensive line. He also said getting to 10 would be tough with this group, and landing on eight players he can trust up front would be more likely for this season.
That starts with senior Colton McKivitz, a preseason All-Big 12 pick who has made the move from right tackle to left tackle to replace Cajuste. McKivitz vacating the right side opens the door for fellow senior Kelby Wickline, who the coaching staff praised several times during camp, at right tackle.
The interior of the line is where this gets a bit sticky.
Prior to camp, redshirt junior Josh Sills, a second-team All-Big 12 selection in 2018, was listed as the starter at right guard with junior Mike Brown at left guard and junior Chase Behrndt at center. Since then, there has been some shuffling. It looks like Moore will be going with Sills at center to start the season. Brown is still in place at left guard, while 6-foot-5 sophomore John Hughes has been getting reps at right guard. Behrndt is still in the mix for playing time, though it may come in a backup role at one of the guard spots.
Redshirt freshman James Gmiter, who came to WVU as a defensive linemen before making the switch to offense, as well as redshirt sophomore Adam Stilley, a former standout at Martinsburg High, also received stamps of approval from the coaching staff during camp. Throw in redshirt freshman Briason Mays and redshirt sophomore Tyler Thurmond, and Moore has some options. How much they play, however, will be determined by how much trust Moore and Brown can place in them.
With players like McKivitz and Sills leading the group, the offensive line could be a strength for WVU. With so many question marks behind them on the depth chart, however, the line could also be an Achilles heel for the Mountaineers in 2019.