Biggest Questions for WVU’s 2021 Season
The last few months, and weeks, have proven a whirlwind for fans, writers, and coaches alike. The Mountaineers started this Summer with a fresh blast of recruiting momentum that continues to build toward its Class of 2022. In the meantime, however, Texas and Oklahoma announced their intention to depart for the Big 12. West Virginia’s options in response are clear. We discussed those options with WVU fans to see how they might react to those options. That said, with Summer camp beginning in just days on August 6, we can be sure the coaches are players are shedding distractions to do what they love most: play football. It is a good time, then, for us to consider the biggest questions for WVU’s 2021 season.
How Will West Virginia’s Defensive Line Adjust
For the last three seasons, the Mountaineers marches out a pair of brothers from Fairmont whose (friendly) competitive play raised the defensive line’s output each year. After his All-American season, Darius Stills moved on to the NFL. His brother Dante remains for (presumably) one final season. The younger Stills has himself been named to some pre-season All-American watch lists. The question remains, though, how will he fare with all that extra attention from opposing teams focused on him?
Enter Akheem Mesidor. As a freshman, Mesidor offered the Mountaineers some huge plays. Mesidor accounted for 215 snaps last season, and he was in on a tackle 32 times, adding five sacks to his team’s totals. Opposing offenses that focus extra attention on Stills will draw attention away from Mesidor, and he proves more than capable of taking advantage.
In total, WVU features a defensive line with three veterans returning more than 200 snaps of experience. Behind them, the Mountaineers offer a healthy mix of returning players and some polished-looking newcomers. Indeed, Head Coach Neal Brown admitted his surprise over the Spring and Summer at just how strong freshman Edward Vesterinen looked and played. On the whole, we think the defensive line plays just as well this year as it did last. Indeed, Brown looks for it to improve even more.
If the line adjusts well to maintain its solid play from 2020 (or even improves), that would go a long way to answering our next question favorably.
Can the Mountaineers’ Find Their Second Cornerback?
Cornerback is, far and away, the most shallow position on the roster in terms of returning depth. Only Nicktroy Fortune, who returns over 850 snaps, offers veteran leadership. Jackie Matthews and Daryl Porter Jr., both saw playing time last season, but both also saw less than 50 snaps.
Over the offseason, WVU added FCS transfer Charles Woods from Illinois State. Woods played in 26 games (starting 15) over his freshman and sophomore seasons. He redshirted last season and arrived in Morgantown with two years of remaining eligibility. Woods will be counted on to stabilize the cornerback room after the unexpected transfer of Dreshun Miller.
In addition, West Virginia added talented freshman Andrew Wilson-Lamp to the team. Wilson-Lamp enrolled early, so he has had time to mature through Mike Joseph‘s strength and conditioning program. Thus, while the Mountaineers do not yet have a presumptive second starter, they will surely field a healthy competition for the role. This should also produce depth at the position that the team will surely count on as the season wears on. If that depth can mature quickly, then the West Virginia defense should produce nearly as effectively as it did in 2020.
How Much Can the Offensive Line Improve?
Generally, the defense kept the Mountaineers in most of its games in 2020. The unit offered fans the first taste of what WVU football can look like under Coach Brown. Unfortunately, the experience and depth that left after former Head Coach Dana Holgorsen‘s final season put the offense behind the eight-ball. That lack of depth was most apparent on the offensive line. Not surprisingly then, the Mountaineers’ running game produced at a historically low level.
We predicted the offensive line would improve in 2020 and give Leddie Brown and his backfield mates some more room. They did just that. But they still looked a touch slow in pass protection. Going into his third year, Brown certainly needs his offense to complement an overhauled defense. The offensive line has been overhauled, and we wrote about that extensively last Winter.
To summarize, West Virginia’s offensive line room now holds four different blue-chip recruits: Doug Nester, Ja’Quay Hubbard, Wyatt Milum, and Chris Mayo. Some are further along with those others in their development, but this bodes well for the development of starting talent and depth. Many fans might be surprised to hear this, but, including Nester’s snaps at Virginia Tech, the offensive line features five players who have played over 400 snaps at the Power Five level.
The question is how much it can improve. If it can offer better pass protection and open up even more lanes for West Virginia’s talent-laden backfield, the sky is the limit.
Can The Wideouts Limit Mental Mistakes?
Abiding by the general rule that a pass that hits the receiver’s hands is a catchable ball, we count 24 dropped passes by West Virginia’s receivers last season. Some tallies climb as high as 27. By our count, these dropped passes stalled over a dozen drives cost the Mountaineers at least four touchdowns directly (likely several more indirectly), and kept over 250 additional passing yards out of the stat sheet.
Simply, WVU’s receivers must do a better job of hanging on to catchable balls. Can they do so? Coach Brown certainly seems to think so. Brown talks up Bryce Ford-Wheaton every chance he gets. Winston Wright should feature heavily in the rotation, as he was incredibly reliable the past two seasons. Sam James possesses plenty of talent, and in his third year, we will know soon enough whether he takes that next step. Freshman Kaden Prather certainly looked the part in the Spring game.
We can say this for sure. If the offensive line improves its pass protection and one or more of these guys can shake the drops that have plagued them for two straight seasons, WVU should be able to add a win or two on their schedule. Indeed, last season, they lost two games by a single score. One more touchdown and one less stalled drive produce a different outcome in each.
What About the Quarterback?
The last of our biggest questions for WVU’s 2021 season is perhaps the most important one. What about the quarterback? Brown singled out Jarret Doege as the most improved player on the Mountaineers’ roster heading into 2021. Many WVU fans have been critical of Doege at various points these last two seasons. We have, too. His deep ball has been inconsistent. Sometimes, he balks on the simple outlet passes, too. His strong suit seems to be passes thrown between five and 20 yards.
In and of itself, that is not bad, especially if the offensive line and wideouts can offer better support around Doege. Adding back in just half of the dropped passes, Doege would have completed 67% of his passes for 2,700 yards, with 16 touchdowns to four interceptions. For ten games, that production is far more than pedestrian.
The real issue with Doege, however, has been his mobility. In his first few games in 2019, he injected an air of confidence into the team and made a few plays with his legs to sustain drives at critical junctures. 2020 represented a regression. Brown tells us that Doege’s biggest improvements have been pocket awareness and footwork. If fine-tuning those parts of his mechanics can improve his mobility just a hair, then the offense could easily produce an extra touchdown each game. If so, that could easily represent the difference between a 6-win season and a 9-win season.
We think that if the team answers just three of our biggest questions for WVU’s 2021 season positively, then the next step of Coach Brown’s climb will equal a sizable leap. Either way, we will start learning the answers in just over a month.