Mountaineers Looking for Momentum in Spring Game
We have previewed each position from quarterback through the secondary as part of our ongoing Spring camp coverage for West Virginia. Now, we provide our preview for the Old Gold and Blue game this Saturday. The team will take the field at 1:00 p.m. ESPN+ will televise the affair for fans who cannot attend in person. After a 6-7 season in 2021, we find the Mountaineers looking for momentum in the Spring game.
How Well Has the Offensive Line Gelled
With many eyes trained on the quarterback (fans will not see JT Daniels until after he graduates in May), we overlook the importance of the offensive line. In our view, however, how much it has–or has not–improved stands as the biggest question mark facing the Mountaineers this Spring and heading into next season.
In our position preview series, we noted that this was the first season that Head Coach Neal Brown and Offensive Line Coach Matt Moore work with a whole unit of returning veterans. Indeed, assuming there are no surprise transfers from the unit after the Spring game, this will be the first year that the staff is working with the same offensive line between two seasons. Continuity matters here. Communication remains of utmost importance. Knowing the weaknesses, the strengths, and the warning signs of your fellow fighters in the trench can be the difference between a sealed gap and a broken play.
That does not mean the unit is without changes. Wyatt Milum worked at left tackle through most of the Spring. Brandon Yates has dealt with injury, opening the door for Ja’Quay Hubbard to get some burn at right tackle. Jordan White has also rotated at center and guard. These developments give the staff more options.
The presumptive starters return over 11 years of collective experience at the Power Five level. An extremely young unit has now become one of the older units in the conference. Will that translate to a significant improvement? That depends on how well the offensive line has gelled. Regardless, we see the Mountaineers looking for momentum in this room during the Spring Game.
About Those Running Backs
Behind the offensive line, the Mountaineers have an abundance of talent at running back. Lyn-J Dixon entered the mix as a heralded four-star transfer from Clemson. Dixon averaged over six yards per carry on 218 attempts while with the Tigers. A fast-twitch running back, Dixon only needs a small amount of room to create space and break for a long gain. He can also work out of the backfield as a pass catcher.
Tony Mathis also returns ready to build on his momentum from late last season when he ripped off 100 yards against Kansas. Sure, we can say “it was just Kansas,” but Mathis looked exceptionally sharp doing so, and we expect big things from him. Behind those two are a duo of four-star redshirt freshmen who have shown bright flashes this Spring. Both Jaylen Anderson and Justin Johnson look like they belong at this level, and they should offer Dixon and Mathis plenty of breathing room as the long season carries on.
The biggest question in the room is how does the staff keep all four happy. Dixon technically has two years of eligibility remaining, though we would not be surprised to see him get back to top form and declare for the draft after a single season. For him to do that, he will certainly want time to showcase his skills, leaving Dixon and Mathis as the presumptive lightning-and-thunder combination atop the depth chart.
Anderson and Johnson, however, have bright futures and played themselves into looks in the backfield. It will be interesting to see how the division of carries progresses throughout the season. Given the toll that snaps at running back take on the body, however, we doubt the staff complains any about the extra talent here.
Mountaineers Looking for Momentum with Young Quarterbacks
Much has been written about West Virginia’s young trio of quarterbacks. Between the three, they bring just around 150 snaps of collective Power Five experience. As a result, each quarterback amounts to unrealized potential. How quickly each builds momentum and translates that into big plays will determine the pecking order for 2022.
We have no doubt we will see plenty of all three in the Old Gold and Blue Game this weekend. Through Spring, the staff has rotated each with the first and second units. This gives them time to build timing and trust with their surrounding weapons and lines. Reading just slightly into the coaches’ comments this Spring, it appears Garrett Greene has shown the most maturity and consistency. Will Crowder has shown signs as well, but his location has been less consistent. Nicco Marchiol has had typical growing pains. After all, he’s basically still a high school senior playing with 21 and 22-year-old veterans.
That said, plenty around the program have lauded his maturity. While he makes plenty of mistakes adjusting to the speed of the game at this level, according to Brown, he rarely makes the same mistake twice. That’s certainly a positive sign for his development.
The lights, of course, are not yet “bright” enough to tell which of these three would perform better in big-time situations in real games, but the Spring game will tell us more than comments from the staff after practice.
Can the Defense Adapt to the Losses
Finally, we anxiously await the defense’s performance during the Spring game. We certainly want to see some offense, too, but the defense has had to adjust to a number of losses to the transfer portal. Indeed, the unit lost Nicktroy Fortune, Akheem Mesidor, Josh Chandler-Semedo, Daryl Porter, and Jackie Mathews, each of whom started games in 2021. The losses hurt the Mountaineers’ depth in the secondary most, but Chandler-Semedo makes the team thinner at linebacker, and Mesidor’s transfer limits one of West Virginia’s strengths heading into 2022.
That said, the staff has repeated a few phrases that make us think twice about some of these transfers. In fact, earlier this week, Brown said that the transfer portal makes it difficult to adjust, but it also helps the staff sometimes figure out who they actually want here. The comments make us think that maybe one or two of those transfer decisions actually help the team as a whole.
We think the defense should adapt just fine. The guys left want to be here, and most of those guys have their best football ahead of them. Dante Stills returns for another season. Lance Dixon was as highly touted a linebacker recruit as West Virginia has ever had. Charles Woods has more to prove. Lee Kpogba has been spotted “talking trash to a tire” during drills. The fire certainly seems to be with the team. For Mountaineers looking for momentum, maybe this is the first place to look.
With Graham Harrell’s offense looking to score on every drive, perhaps the defense realizes now that maybe they won’t be leaned on quite as heavily. As a result, they can play with even more fire. After all, we are certain that the unit will not want to be overshadowed by the offense (even if they will be glad to see some more points on the scoreboard).