Mountaineers’ Three Biggest Questions for 2022
As pollsters and experts release their early pre-season polls and the teams actually get to work for 2022 Fall camp, we inch that much closer to opening kickoff. We have been working with a theme for the West Virginia football team this off-season. In a ten-part series, we have been taking a look at all the Mountaineer moments in adversity in the program’s storied history. We looked at two iterations of the Backyard Brawl in both our first and eighth installments of that series. Ultimately, though, we think that theme marries well with our thoughts on how the Mountaineers may fare this season. Whether we prove right depends on how the team answers the Mountaineers’ three biggest questions for 2022. Indeed, our own pollsters pick the Mountaineers to finish fifth in the conference, far better than the eighth and ninth place finishes many other experts predict.
Question One: How Much Does the Offensive Line’s Experience Matter?
Allow us to be blunt. The Mountaineers suffered through below average offensive line for three seasons. Thus, it may surprise fans to learn that this unit draws plenty of pre-season praise from a laundry list of experts. Some even think the unit may sit atop the Big 12 this year.
We see the logic behind the optimism. Indeed, this is the first year in a long time that the Mountaineers return all five starters. That is true, unless Ja’Quay Hubbard supplants Brandon Yates at right tackle. In either case, however, West Virginia features a much more experienced unit. If Hubbard pushes out a guy who started well over a dozen games, then the competition will have made the line better.
In the middle, Zach Frazier returns for his junior season having racked up over 1,350 snaps at this level. James Gmiter (over 1,650 snaps) and Doug Nester (over 1,700 snaps) join him at the guard spots. Nester, by the way, played like the best guard in the conference last season over the second half of the season. Not coincidentally, he lost the club on his hand after the Baylor game. To anchor the unit, the presumptive starters are Wyatt Milum, who rotates over to left tackle, and Yates, who moves to the right.
Milum earned his way onto plenty of pre-season award lists with his strong play towards the end of his true freshman season. He may represent the most inexperienced member of the line, but, in terms of raw talent, he also represents the most gifted. That showed, particularly in the last four games of 2021. Moving his talent to left tackle offers the Mountaineers’ quarterbacks more blind-side protection.
Regardless, the added experience and veteran leadership cannot hurt. The question remains, though, does that experience translate to performance?
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Question Two: Can JT Daniels Stay Healthy?
To be clear, Head Coach Neal Brown refused to declare a starter in his pre-camp depth chart. He declares an open competition for the quarterback position heading into Fall camp. That said, we find it difficult to believe JT Daniels would yield the job. We do not say that because the position room lacks talent; it does not. Instead, Daniels was a five-star recruit out of a high school for a reason. When healthy, he has shown why. Over his last nine games, he completed just under 70% of his passes for 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions. He averaged nearly 10 yards per attempt. Those numbers came in a run-first offense, too.
He reunites with his former Offensive Coordinator, Graham Harrell. The offense should offer more balance than the Mike Leach iteration of the Air Raid offensive tree, but Harrell will give his starting quarterback plenty of room to air it out. As a result, those numbers may ultimately look pedestrian compared to what the air raid could produce.
Pitt fans will surely object to this next statement, but Daniels is objectively a more talented quarterback than Kedon Slovis, the guy who lost the position battle to Daniels but took over only because of Daniels’ injuries. What did he do in Harrell’s offense? How does nine yards per attempt and 30 touchdowns to nine interceptions sound?
The biggest question surrounding Daniels is not his talent level or performance. Instead, one of the Mountaineers’ three biggest questions remains whether he can stay healthy for a complete season.
Question Three: Can the Secondary Actually Improve Despite the Losses?
Last season, the Mountaineers played a lot of zone coverage in its secondary. The defense still played well. That said, they brought less pressure than the staff preferred. One of the Mountaineers’ three biggest questions, then, is whether the secondary can actually take a step forward despite transfer portal losses over the last two seasons.
On paper, we know that fans would rather see Tykee Smith, Darryl Porter, Dreshun Miller, Nicktroy Fortune, and Charles Woods manning the secondary. But four of those guys elected to transfer. The other replaced Fortune after his injury. Once that happened, the secondary saw immediate improvement. As we have said elsewhere, Fortune graded as one of the three worst defenses on the entire roster in 2021. On the hand, Woods graded as one of the three best.
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Brown told fans and media during Big 12 media days and elsewhere that he thinks the 2022 defense might actually be his best yet. Without naming names, Brown tells us that the prior iterations of WVU defenses required zone coverage to mask weaknesses at corner. This year, however, Brown believes the defense should prove more equipped to handle man coverage.
Woods definitely proved that last season. He plays the Mountaineer way: he has a big-time chip on his shoulder and wants to prove his detractors wrong. With no shortage of confidence, Woods went toe to toe with some of the best receivers in the conference and locked them down. In the Old Gold and Blue game this Spring, Andrew Wilson-Lamp displayed speed and athleticism. We presume he starts opposite Woods unless someone supplants him through Fall camp. He brings plus coverage skills to the table.
The Mountaineers may rotate players at safety. According to Brown, though, this may be a good thing. Again, without naming names, Brown said certain players had a me-first attitude. They focused on getting talented players who bought into their team-first concept this offseason. Will that help improve the secondary? We have reason to believe it may, but the team has to prove it on the field, of course.