Make-or-Break Spring Begins for Mountaineers
Few fans actually want their favorite team’s head coach fired. Wanting that means the fan also wants failure, for the coach and team. Yet programs enter crossroads where impatience due to lack of on-field success dominates. The West Virginia Mountaineers find themselves here after posting three losing seasons in their last four. We asked last October where the Mountaineers might head next after they suffered their second of three consecutive losses in the heart of conference play. Still, we ask that question. We do not want the failure that would mean the end of the Neal Brown era in Morgantown. That said, as this make-or-break Spring begins for the Mountaineers, we would not be doing our job if we did not start here. If Brown cannot find a way to win eight games this year, a thinning fan base will turn completely.
A Brief History Lesson
Between 1999 and 2018–a span of twenty straight seasons–WVU posted just three total losing seasons. Beginning with the 2019 season, they have matched that number. They had not suffered two straight losing seasons since the end of the Frank Cignetti era when they fell below .500 for four straight seasons. The era ended way back in 1979, over 40 years ago. That, perhaps, is a lesson for why fans should never wish for the departure of a head coach. Fans were not content with a 60% winning percentage under Dana Holgorsen, but now they are being asked to swallow a fifth season of what amounts to five-and-a-half-win football.
This does not sit well with a fan base that rallies around their beloved Mountaineers. The team that seeks to embody the blue-collar mentality of the State it represents should be–and can be–better than that. Can it be better with Brown? This season will tell.
We will go through a position preview series over the course of the Spring heading into the Gold-Blue Game on April 22. That said, we can preview the, uh, previews a bit here. West Virginia enters its make-or-break Spring with some strengths. The offensive line enters the Spring with 15 scholarship linemen, seven upperclassmen, and three multi-year starters. The final two spots–alongside Doug Nester, Wyatt Milum, and Zach Frazier–can come from upperclassmen who have started plenty of games in each of the last several seasons (a la Brandon Yates) or promising young players or late-emerging potential starts (a la Tomas Rimac). The position is one of strength, regardless.
Behind them, the running back room is among the deepest West Virginia has featured in several years. Before an injury derailed his season, superstar freshman CJ Donaldson lit up box scores. Tony Mathis, Jaylen Anderson, and Justin Johnson each have had their moments to shine as well. Add to that mix the lightning-and-thunder freshman pair of DJ Oliver and Jahiem White, and you can see why we call this a strength. Brown has long professed a desire to play ground-and-pound football, and this looks like the best chance yet to do it.
While they will certainly miss the steadying (and dominant) presence of Dante Stills on the defensive line, the Mountaineers also return plenty of talent to the room, led by Sean Martin and Edward Vesterinen.
In some ways, the weaknesses fall in line with the strengths. For as much as West Virginia lost to the transfer portal (16 through the early window) and graduation, the Mountaineers actually return a significant percentage of their production in key areas. Indeed, they return more than 75% of their 2022 snaps at running back, offensive line, linebacker, and safety. The problem, as some may see it, is that the team returns so much of its production that led to a five-win season. We will place a pin in this though, as we will circle back to it shortly.
One potential weakness–that could prove a strength–is the quarterback room. The Mountaineers enter the season with just three scholarship quarterbacks. Between the two returning quarterbacks, the snap count is low. That said, while many fans thought maybe the combination of Graham Harrell and JT Daniels would produce magic together, it never translated. While the offensive production increased, wins never followed, and the defensive output suffered. That said, in games where Garrett Greene or Nicco Marchiol played the majority, West Virginia saw a 2-1 record. The sample size is small, but it is promising. Meanwhile, fans have literally begged for West Virginia’s offense to feature a dual threat–or even a semi-mobile–quarterback for several years. They will get their wish this season.
The wide receiver room also represents a weakness in terms of returning experience. All four of its leading 2022 receivers moved on (two to graduation; two to the portal). Playmakers linger, depending on how well four-star transfer Devin Carter and four-star freshman Rodney Gallagher fit into the program. It is hard to ignore the dearth of familiar faces, however. One of those new names (Gallagher) will not join the team in time for the make-or-break Spring.
Now, we turn back to our first weakness. In the era of the transfer portal, fans may be lulled into this sense that fresh faces from greener pastures are the only way a roster can improve. If we look back to the favorable parts of our history, though, the Mountaineers have had their best seasons when they eclipsed that mark where they featured more returning veterans than underclassmen. Outside of a few rooms, West Virginia can boast that much this year. Believe it or not, players can–and often do–improve from one year to the next. Is it likely that a depth piece becomes a superstar? No. But it is quite possible that a young man who flashed potential realizes it after a season or two of growth and added maturity. Absolutely.
Brown certainly seems to be banking on just that this year. While adding eight transfers to the roster as well as some very promising freshmen, Brown kept a fair portion of the budding talent he recruited intact. Take a look at the linebacker room for example. Lee Kpogba, Lance Dixon, and Jared Bartlett all had moments where they showed an ability to be dominant. The highlights of their performances were sometimes marred in inconsistency. Does another year take them to a point where they dominate more often than they fall back? Time will tell. That question is probably the most critical one for the make-or-break Spring that the Mountaineers and Brown entered this week. How they answer it will ultimately tell the story of WVU’s 2023 season.