No. 17 West Virginia enters this season with a top of the line offense, an offense that some view as the best in the country. With a Heisman hopeful at quarterback, a loaded wide receiver room, four capable running backs, and a solid offensive line, some national media members have selected the Mountaineers to reach the College Football Playoffs.
Seven starters return to an offense that put up 459.6 yards per game and 34.5 points per game last year, finishing the season as a top-20 offense in the country and fourth-best in the Big 12. While the offense had a successful season, one could argue that the offense underperformed following the injury to starting quarterback Will Grier that cost him most of the Texas game and the final two games of the season.
Though the Mountaineers return seven starters, the four new likely starters have been in the program for a couple of years as well. As a result, West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen views his 2018 team as very mature, as multiple as they’ve been, and believes this is the best leadership group he’s had while in Morgantown.
With familiar faces in familiar roles, much of the offense will be much of the same while possessing different nuances out of specific formations.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of similarities to last year,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said on Tuesday. “There’s not very many new faces, which is comforting from a coaching standpoint because these guys have played a lot of football.
“You’re going to see a lot of twists and little nuances to this offense, and I think that’s what you’re going to see every game,” Holgorsen said earlier this week. “You have to adjust to the personnel that you have. You’re going to evolve your offense based on the studies that you’ve done in the offseason and how you try to do some professional development and study other things. You’re going to still see a lot of different looks with this offense, but you’re still going to see the same guys out there making plays. I think it’s an exciting brand of football.”
While 11 personnel – one running back and one tight end – is West Virginia’s bread-and-butter, the Mountaineers’ offense spends most of its time in two formations. The majority of the time, they’ll line up with wide receivers, two to each side, or three on one side and one to the other. In this, they’ll rotate six receivers they feel are capable of making a big play at any point in the game.
The other formation they’ll use is simple as well: three receivers paired with an H-back. Again, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and Holgorsen feel comfortable using any wide receiver, but they’ll pair them with one of three H-backs – Trevon Wesco, Jovani Haskins, or TJ Banks. The Mountaineers don’t possess a prototypical tight end, although the H-back serves the role of one.
Out of these formations, West Virginia will use a multitude of nuances to keep the defense honest. With the H-back in, Spavital feels comfortable running or throwing the football. With four receivers in, he loves to shift guys around in order to find the best possible match-up.
Let’s take a look position-by-position at West Virginia’s offense.
West Virginia’s dynamic offense begins and ends with Will Grier. The offense goes as Grier goes, as seen last season once he went down with an injury. Grier possesses a big arm, moves well in the pocket, doesn’t get rattled, has a smooth delivery, provides great touch, and is mechanically sound.
Under Spavital, Grier’s first year in Morgantown was successful. The Charlotte native threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns in 10 games, while completing 64 percent of his passes. Grier tossed 12 interceptions, however.
Looking back in history, year No. 2 should be Grier’s best in Morgantown. Nearly every quarterback in Holgorsen’s system throughout his coaching career has taken a big step forward in the second year. Just look at what Graham Harrell, Case Keenum, Brandon Weeden, Kliff Kingsbury, Geno Smith, Clint Trickett, and Skyler Howard were all able to do in year two.
“I think we were disappointed in the middle of the season last year,” Grier said on the team’s change in attitude. “I think we were really talented, and we put that on display. We couldn’t always put it together and win games, and we felt we could have won. So, we put in a lot of work this offseason to win those games, and no matter what you do, you have to go out and do it on Saturdays now. It’s like I said – it’s about executing now and putting it all together.”
Grier has all the skills to win a Heisman and become a first-round pick, but no quarterback in the country will have a better supporting cast at wide receiver this season.
It starts with David Sills, a former quarterback who committed to play at USC as a seventh grader. Sills ended up at West Virginia as a quarterback, but after a position change to receiver and one start, he transferred to junior college. At El Camino College, the 6-foot-4 Sills committed himself to wide receiver and headed back to Morgantown.
Upon his return, Sills broke out right away, becoming the first wide receiver in West Virginia to catch three touchdowns in one game when he did so against Virginia Tech in the season-opener last year. He would go on to catch 60 passes for 980 yards and 18 touchdowns. Those 18 scores were tied for the most in the nation.
Opposite of Sills is Gary Jennings, a 6-foot-1 senior, who hauled in 97 passes for 1,096 yards and a score last year. While Sills was stealing all of the touchdown receptions — Jennings caught just one on the season — he averaged 11.3 yards per reception. Jennings proved to be the go-to guy on third down, as 49 of his catches picked up a first down.
Ka’Ron White departs Morgantown following a 1,000-yard season, but West Virginia has options as for who will fill in for White as the third receiving option. T.J. Simmons is eligible after transferring from Alabama, Marcus Simms is a quick slot guy who also returns punts, Tevin Bush is a former 5-foot-7 running back who is expected to be a mismatch in the slot, and at 6-foot-5, Dominque Maiden presents another red-zone threat.
“I’ve tried to move them around and make things a little hard for them,” receivers coach Tyron Carrier said. “They’re an experienced bunch now. It’s really just getting them to the game. There was a lot of energy coming through this place yesterday, and it was an off day. These guys are really focused, and they’re ready to prove themselves. I’m happy with them.”
There are as many options for West Virginia at running back as there are receivers. The Mountaineers lose a 1,000-yard rusher in Justin Crawford but return primary backup Kennedy McCoy. The junior rushed for 596 yards and seven touchdowns on 125 carries while fellow junior Martell Pettway rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns on 43 carries. While McCoy and Pettway are the two veterans, they could eventually be overtaken by redshirt freshman Alec Sinkfield and freshman Leddie Brown. Sinkfield is an explosive back who has impressed in both the spring and fall, while Brown is expected to be just one of two true freshmen to play from the jump for West Virginia. All four running backs are expected to contribute.
“We talk about it and joke around sometimes, but for the most part, we’re all trying to contribute for the team and get the win,” Pettway said when asked about the competition in the backfield. “Whoever is the best back is going to play.”
Last year, West Virginia didn’t really run between the tackles, as it mixed the inside and outside zone plays by pulling the guards. With an experienced, talented offensive line in 2018, the Mountaineers will look to dominate all phases of the running game in order to prevent becoming a one-dimensional offense.
The WVU offensive line is led by the tackles and center. While only five can start on the line, West Virginia has seven that could start. Yodney Cajuste led the group that only allowed 19 sacks last season, the fewest for the Mountaineers since 2008, while earning All-Big 12 second-team honors. Opposite of Cajuste stands Colton McKivitz at 6-foot-7, 300 lbs. The interior of the line is the weakest part of the line, if there is such thing as a weak spot with this line.
At center, it appears Jacob Buccigrossi has won the starting job over center Matt Jones despite not playing the past two seasons due to injuries. Jones allowed just one sack last season on 982 snaps and only had one wayward shotgun snap. At guard, sophomore Josh Sills has won the left guard job while it looks like JUCO signee Joe Brown is ahead of senior Isaiah Hardy, who probably should have redshirted last season.
With seven starters back, a potential Heisman winner at quarterback and depth at every position on offense, the West Virginia offense will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. The Mountaineers will begin their quest to live up to the hype on Saturday against Tennessee.