West Virginia’s Five Biggest Offensive Surprises
As part of our ongoing preseason coverage of the 2020 West Virginia Mountaineers’ football team, we looked at recruiting. We previewed the offensive skill groups: quarterback, running backs, and wide receivers. Then, we previewed the offensive and defensive lines. We also previewed the remaining defensive position groups: linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties. We covered the Mountaineers’ decision to play football this season amidst the ongoing pandemic. Now, we move on to our favorite part of our coverage: making our predictions for the season. We start that coverage by predicting West Virginia’s five biggest offensive surprises.
Offensive Surprise Five – Sam James
Sam James had as solid a season for a freshman as we have seen in Morgantown last year. That is not a figure of speech, either. We have to go all the way back to David Saunders’ 1995 season to find a more productive campaign for a freshman wide receiver. James caught 69 passes for 677 yards and 4 touchdowns. As a result, some might argue about whether and why we include James on our list of biggest offensive surprises. Good question. Our rationale, however, is simple. As productive as James’ season was, we expect him to pile up even more yards and touchdowns this season (in a shorter 10-game season, no less). Thus, while he might be the most productive member of this list, we included him as number 5 solely because expectations precede him.
James’ production, we expect, will reach All-Conference level. And the biggest difference will be his drops. Unfortunately, James dropped a lot of passes last season. This surprised Head Coach Neal Brown, who praised James’ sure hands all throughout fall camp. “He never dropped passes in practice,” repeated Brown several times in post-game interviews last season. Those drops plagued the Mountaineers’ offense plenty last season. We can recall at least four would-be touchdowns that would have added 100 yards or more to James’ totals. We think he fixes this issue this year. That does not mean that James will not drop any passes (most receivers drop a few). But his concentration–and maturity–will improve.
Offensive Surprise Four – Bryce Ford-Wheaton
Bryce Ford-Wheaton makes the second wideout on our list of biggest offensive surprises. Wheaton caught a dozen passes last season for two touchdowns and 201 yards, a far more typical freshman campaign than James. Brown tells us that Wheaton really made the most of the difficult off-season. Wheaton, he says, progressed substantially both physically and mentally. For that work came several great weeks of practice. Brown told the media, in fact, that Wheaton has had really, really good days in practice except for one day. In the team’s opening scrimmage, in fact, Wheaton put up just shy of 100 yards without a problem.
Though James will likely have the biggest season for any of the wideouts, Wheaton will show the most improvement of any receiver. We anticipate Wheaton to net at least 500 yards this season, possibly as many as 600, in two fewer games.
Offensive Surprise Three – Austin Kendall
This selection might come as the biggest surprise to our regular readers. We predicted Jarret Doege to open the season as the Mountaineers’ starting quarterback. Simply, our confidence level in that prediction has never been high. Coach Brown believes that he has a legitimate quarterback competition, meaning that neither quarterback has created substantial separation. We still tend to think Doege gets the nod for the opener. That said, Austin Kendall was the most dogged player on the team last year, and that was unfair.
Kendall dealt with a series of nagging injuries. He saw collapsing pockets to begin the season. He could not rely on a running game to shoulder the load. Kendall also threw a lot of really tight passes that receivers, simply, dropped, taking away dozens of completions, several hundred yards, and at least five touchdowns from his totals. If we add those back into his totals, he would have completed 66% of his throws for more than 250 yards per game, and at least 17 touchdowns (and perhaps one or two fewer interceptions). For a one-dimensional offense, those numbers look good (but not great). But the numbers, either way, look far better than fans’ perceptions would lead one to believe.
Kendall will start some games this season. And his performance will surprise fans who judge his 2019 performance harshly.
Offensive Surprise Two – Junior Uzebu
We included Junior Uzebu in last season’s predicted surprises. We did not expect that Colton McKivitz would vulture over 99% of the snaps at left tackle. As a result, Uzebu saw the field for nine total snaps in 2019. That does not mean our intuition was off. It just means that McKivitz was a stellar, steady hand for the Mountaineers. After all, he earned a fifth-round draft selection despite playing for an oft-maligned unit in Morgantown. Indeed, Uzebu came to Morgantown as a highly-touted tackle with a mean streak. Uzebu played high school football for Alpharetta High School in Georgia. His senior season, Alpharetta finished 11-2, losing in the semi-final round of the 6A state playoffs.
Currently, Uzebu finds himself in the thick of a two-way competition for the starting left tackle slot with Brandon Yates. We think Uzebu ultimately wins that battle in what is now his third season in Morgantown. And Uzebu, listed at 6’6, 298 pounds on the official roster, has all the physical tools to anchor a line and shore up its pass blocking.
Offensive Surprise One – Leddie Brown
Given the Mountaineers’ woes in their run game a year ago, fans will no doubt be surprised to see a running back top our list of biggest offensive surprises. But Coach Brown has mentioned junior running back Leddie Brown in most, if not all, of his press conferences during fall camp. According to Coach Brown, Leddie has been far more patient and has improved tremendously in his ability to finish runs and break tackles at the second and third levels.
Last year, while the offensive line certainly did not pave much room for the Mountaineer running backs, the position group as a whole also failed to break through contact, often seeming to give up on the play too early. As a result, the biggest point of emphasis for Brown over the offseason was improving in one key area: breaking tackles. So far, so good. Since we do expect the offensive line to improve some this season (for reasons we covered in our offensive line preview), Brown should have more room to work with. His improved patience will also help. And once he does meet resistance, we expect him to look a lot meaner through that contact. This should offer fans a steady view of the blue-collar run game Coach Brown hopes to build. Leddie will lead that charge and carry the torch well.