WVU 2021: Five Offensive Surprises
Earlier this week, we covered the first several days of West Virginia’s pre-season camp. As we usually do, we continue our coverage of Mountaineers’ football by predicting five offensive surprises that will exceed expectations for the 2021 campaign. Some of these players represent known quantities that we think will outpace all current expectations. Others currently sit just off the radar. Without further ado, we list our five here.
The first of our five offensive surprises might be the most naturally talented. Indeed, Wyatt Milum represents the highest-rated offensive lineman recruited out of high school in the history of the modern recruiting era. As such, strong play will not come from a lack of talent (or him exceeding talent projections). Instead, we list him as a surprise because it is rare for a true freshman to make a meaningful impact on the offensive line.
Zach Frazier, of course, did this just last year. But as well as Frazier played, he benefitted too from circumstance as much as talent. WVU faced attrition at the center position for two straight years, leaving a straight line to playing time.
Milum’s path is not as straightforward. He projects best as a tackle at this level, and he stands behind at least three players on the depth chart: Parker Moorer, Brandon Yates, and John Hughes. Yates and Hughes each racked up over 450 Division I snaps so far. Moorer enters his third year in the program.
But Milum enters pre-season camp as a true freshman that Head Coach Neal Brown has already called by name several times. He will see some snaps. The question is how many. Some of that depends on how those in front of him play. It also depends on the injury. Milum, however, has a unique combination of talent and drive that will make it increasingly difficult to keep him off the field.
We predict he will see at least 300 snaps and make the most of his opportunities this season.
Moorer represents our second offensive lineman, and second tackle, on our list of five offensive surprises. We call his name for good reason. He enters his third season in the program. Because of the free year due to COVID, he is technically just a redshirt freshman this season. He played 90 snaps last season, and he redshirted the year before that. One would typically like to see a few more snaps at this level out of a starting tackle, but Moorer’s talent has proven impossible to ignore.
At least in the first official depth chart, the coaching staff named Moorer as the team’s starting right tackle, above Hughes, several years Moorer’s senior, who has accumulated 455 snaps in the past two seasons. Pass protection the last two years, however, has been lacking, and Moorer has the body type that Offensive Line Coach Matt Moore likes to work with. With two years under his belt improving his body and learning technique, Moorer looks the part of a starting Big 12 tackle. We believe he will play like one, too, leading to a dramatic turnaround in the quality of the team’s offensive line play.
There are certainly plenty of other receivers who could have very productive seasons. Winston Wright led the team in receptions and yards last season, and he will look to improve upon those numbers. Redshirt freshman Sam Brown has plenty of talent to fill a significant role. Sean Ryan and Isaiah Esdale will command their share of targets. True freshman Kaden Prather has too much talent to keep off the field. Coach Brown talks up Bryce Ford-Wheaton as a guy with the potential to be an All-Conference receiver. We expect two to three of them to fulfill the expectations. This article, however, is about surprises.
Sam James has been an interesting story the last few years. Coming on strong at the end of his freshman season, James offered Will Grier a target in the last few games of 2018. James led the Mountaineers in receptions and yards as a redshirt freshman in 2019. In 2020, he regressed statistically. In each of the last two seasons, however, James consistently dropped catchable passes. We heard about him visiting sports psychologists to deal with confidence issues he dealt with. Nothing has helped so far.
As a result, many fans have written James off. Not us. James still offers plenty of talent. We think he will take a big step forward in his third full year with the team. If he overcomes the mental block that plagues him, James has as much talent as any receiver on the team. We think he does just that and puts up similar numbers to his 2019 campaign, with far fewer dropped balls and several more touchdowns.
Number two on our list of five offensive surprises for the Mountaineers is Tony Mathis. Coach Brown and his staff have openly discussed a few things about the team’s running game the past couple of seasons.
First, they admit that the team’s 2018 performance was bad. While they improved in 2019, improvement was pretty much a given. They couldn’t have gotten worse (okay, maybe they could have, but it was not likely). Brown called the running game as a whole “average” in 2019.
Two problems kept them from being good.
First, they were forced to call Leddie Brown‘s number far more often than they wanted last year. None of the other backs stepped up to the point where the staff felt comfortable shifting carries from a highly-productive Brown to the others in the room. Offensive Coordinator Gerad Parker pointed to one reason why. He said that the COVID-shortened season was particularly unfair for players going into their second seasons. Importantly, it stripped them from Spring practice and reduced the work they could do in the Summer. Mathis was one such player.
Second, and likely as a result of the first issue, WVU’s running game performed poorly in the fourth quarter. It is certainly hard to close out games or pull out close contests while being hampered in the run game late.
Tony Mathis will help the Mountaineers fix those problems this season. Going into his third season now, Mathis appears poised to take on a bigger role. Expectations for him are minimal because he is, as yet, an unknown quantity. Additionally, four-star freshman Justin Johnson certainly offers talent to the room. But we expect Mathis will carry the ball 100 times or more and give Brown the rest needed to work in the fourth quarter.
We have followed closely the off-season developments with Jarret Doege. Brown called him the most improved player on the team multiple times since Spring. We expressed some doubts about this. In large part, our reservation is based on the fact that Doege has started games in four straight seasons. It would be unusual for a quarterback to take that big of a jump in his fifth college season. The most frequent examples cited to the contrary involve players who started games in only one prior season. Indeed, that is the biggest jump (usually) for skill players: between their first year as a starter and their second.
As a result, in some ways, we still actively wonder how much he can improve. That said, Brown cites improvement from Doege in technical areas like footwork, poise in the pocket, and release angle. If he has improved in these areas, then we can see Doege increasing his productivity, especially if the offensive line and receivers improve as much as they can. We believe they will. As a result, we do think Doege’s numbers will look much better this season. As a result (in part because we get the feeling that Doege is going to prove our earlier comments and our continued reluctance wrong), we identify Doege as one of our five offensive surprises.
How much better can they be? That depends, in part, on the run-pass balance. Assuming he throws for about 500 passes, we expect Doege to complete 65% of those passes, throw for over 3,500 yards, and toss over 25 touchdowns to eight interceptions (or fewer). While we anticipate the other quarterbacks getting some snaps, based on what we have seen and heard so far, we would expect Doege to begin and end the year as the starter.