MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Mountaineers tasted sweet victory in January when they topped the Arizona State Sun Devils 43-42 in the Cactus Bowl. QB Skyler Howard played a dominant role in the win, tossing five touchdown passes for a bowl-record 532 yards.
That performance, which earned him the bowl’s Offensive MVP trophy, also helped tab him a spot on the 2016 Maxwell Award Watch List (for America’s best college player) as well as the 2016 Davey O’Brien National Quarterback Award Watch List. As WVU’s projected starter, all eyes are on the Texas native once again.
“It all depends on the individual and how bad they want it,” Howard said last week when discussing his offseason improvements, which included both mechanical and mental adjustments. “If they wanna get better at something, they’re gonna get better. If they don’t and they don’t put in the work, then it’ll show.”
Howard finished his junior campaign with 3,145 passing yards and 26 touchdowns. He also picked up 726 yards and six touchdowns with his feet. Head coach Dana Holgorsen, who has watched Howard progress over the last three years, is fully committed to making his squad “Skyler’s team” for the second season in a row.
“He looks like a senior,” said Holgorsen. “He looks like a starting QB to me. Everything makes sense. The signals and communication looks good. His checks are outstanding. You are starting to see timing with the receivers improve.”
With the starting spot settled, competition for the backup position is heating up. Redshirt sophomore William Crest and redshirt freshman Chris Chugunov are the most viable candidates for the role. Freshman Cody Saunders could also become a factor as the season progresses.
William Crest is the most experienced of the three, seeing action in 12 total games over the past two seasons at a variety of positions. The Dunbar HS alum is the frontrunner for the spot, as he was last season, when he completed 11 of 25 pass attempts while stepping in for Howard. On top of that, he will likely see snaps at RB and WR, as well as some sort of role on special teams.
“The biggest challenge with William (Crest) is his expectations of himself are extremely high,” Holgorsen said. “He’s extremely competitive, and he wants to please and he wants to learn and he wants to do well.”
Chris Chugunov, who redshirted last season and has yet to see game action, has spent a majority of the offseason nursing a formally injured shoulder. According to Holgorsen, the injury is nothing serious and will not prevent Chugunov from seeing snaps.
“Chugs has a bad shoulder,” Holgorsen said in April. “It’s not threatening. It’s a nonsurgical injury. He will be fine. He just needs to rest on that. We took reps away from him (in the Gold-Blue Spring Game) which allowed some of these other guys to rep more.”
Cody Saunders, of Panama City, Florida, ranked as the 16th best QB recruit in the nation according to ESPN prior to his early enrollment at WVU. He completed his high school career with nearly 5,000 passing yards and a whopping 37 touchdowns.
“He (Saunders) is a long way away, but he’s showing potential,” Holgorsen said earlier this spring. “That’s why we recruited him.”
Saunders tossed two touchdown passes in WVU’s Gold-Blue Spring Game this April, which dazzled his mentor and fellow QB Skyler Howard.
“He’s smart,” said Howard. “He’s really athletic. He picked up the offense pretty fast. He’s still spinning out there when the signals come in, which is normal. He’s still supposed to be in high school. But he’s looking good. I’m really proud of the way he’s gone this spring.”
Holgorsen has yet to give a definitive answer to the question “Who’s the backup?” but is pleased with the fact that he has three seemingly reliable options to choose from.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Crest has shown some really good things, and Chugs has shown some really good things. Chugs can sit in the pocket and throw the ball more accurate than anyone. It’s still a work in progress right now. I think Skyler has solidified himself as a confident senior QB that runs the offense very well. You have to get No. 2 and No. 3 ready. We will continue to rep them.”
Holgorsen recently added Florida transfer Will Grier to WVU’s QB roster. However, due to transfer rules and other suspension requirements, Grier will not be eligible to play until the 2017-18 season. Former WVU QB’s Austin Hensley and David Sills (transfer) are no longer on roster.
Full list of players listed as QB on WVU’s current roster:
No. 3 Skyler Howard, No. 7 Will Grier (not eligible until 2017), No. 10 Cody Saunders, No. 11 Chris Chugunov, No. 16 William Crest
The preseason depth chart published on Sunday July 18th lists QB’s in this order; Howard, Chugunoz, Crest Jr.
Cover Image Credit: wvusports.com