MORGANTOWN, W.Va–The West Virginia Mountaineers concluded their spring practices with this past Saturday’s Gold-Blue scrimmage and even though the Blue won 44-21–based on the unconventional scoring system– there was a lot to like for Mountaineer fans who attended or watched the game.
Here are five observations that I took away from the contest:
1. The Will Grier hype appears to be real.
Last season defensive coordinator Tony Gibson built that hype of Grier by stating that he would be the best quarterback in the Big 12 if he was available. That was high praise considering the conference had Baker Mayfield, Patrick Mahomes and Mason Rudolph just to name a few. But Gibson never backed off his comments and fans started to secretly wish for 2017 to arrive.
Everyone knows the backstory of the junior to be. He started his career at Florida where he was 6-0 as a starter and led the Gators to a top 10 ranking before being suspended for taking an over the counter workout supplement without checking with the trainers first. Once he quit slinging the rock for Florida, the Gators struggled mightily on offense. So, there is that.
On Saturday, Grier went 12-18 for 202 yards. He threw slants, out routes, quick routes and a couple deep balls, including a beauty to receiver Ricky Rogers. He is also a threat to run when the play breaks down and he didn’t even show that part of his arsenal in the spring game.
He is definitely the real deal. However, the expectations for him may be a little outrageous. He could not complete a pass Saturday without some fans mentioning the “Heisman Trophy” or the “college football playoffs.”
So while Grier will most likely turn in a great season, will it be enough to meet the Mountaineer fans standards? We will see.
2. Welcome Back to WVU, David Sills.
Grier had a favorite target in the game in former and also current Mountaineer receiver David Sills. Sills, who left the team at the end of the spring last season to try to be a quarterback at the juco level one last time, is back and now fully committed to the receiver position.
The word from camp were that he and Grier really developed a close connection on and off the field and that showed early on Saturday. Of Grier’s first seven completions, five went to Sills. The junior finished with six catches and 98 yards.
As a freshman two years ago, the coaches raved about Sills’ athleticism and his ability to catch the ball so they inserted him into the lineup. He had several good catches on the year, but his most memorable came in the Cactus Bowl against Arizona State as he caught what turned out to be the game winning scoring pass.
If he dedicates himself over the next four months as he did the last four weeks, Sills could be in line for a HUGE year.
3. Is it Possible the Defense Will Reload?
Last season’s defense, led by Gibson, surprised a lot of people with their stellar play. Considered the best defense in the Big 12 for most of the year, many fans and experts thought a big step back was inevitable. And although that could very well be true, if the spring game was any indication, the unit may reload rather than rebuild.
Gone from last year are Rasul Douglas, Noble Nwachukwu, Christian Brown, Maurice Fleming, Justin Arndt, Jeremy Tyler, Darien Howard and several more but the coaches really like what they have coming back.
For the last couple of years and for the first time in a long time, the Mountaineers are not replacing good experienced players with inexperience. They are sticking guys into the lineup that have been in the program for several years. So, they know the scheme and what they are supposed to be doing, it’s just up to the individual player to work hard and become a force.
The biggest question marks right now are along the defensive line and at cornerback.
The line is actually very depth heavy but it lacks a big name star although Adam Shuler is poised to be that guy very soon. But they are going eight deep according to coach Bruce Tall and that is a positive thing. Remember the names Xavier Pegues, Reese Donahue, Jeffrey Pooler, Jaleel Fields and Ezekiel Rose. Those guys and a few others seem ready to step up and make the position a strength.
Losing Douglas was a blow to the defensive backfield after he tied for the national lead in interceptions. But Elijah Battle returns with experience after starting three games last year, Mike Daniels looked good this spring and early enrollee sophomore Hakeem Bailey was reportedly a pleasant surprise that will play this fall. Throw in Syracuse graduate transfer Corey Winfield who will be here in June and the Mountaineers will be just fine on that side of the ball.
4. The Running Backs are Really Really Good.
The biggest strength on this year’s team may very well be the running backs. Justin Crawford played two series in the spring game and had a nifty 51-yard touchdown run and is a favorite for the Big 12 rushing title. However, getting that title will be tough because of his fellow running mates. Martell Pettaway, Kennedy McKoy and Tevin Bush all looked good in practice and McKoy and Pettaway each had a 100-yard game last season so their production speaks for itself.
The wildcard here is Bush. The early enrollee true freshman turned heads this spring with his electric moves and the strong base of his lower body. He played receiver, where he catches the ball well, and running back where he will remind fans of a mix of Noel Devine and Jock Sanders. Fans got a slight glimpse of him in the spring game as he was always breaking the first tackle and reversing his field for exciting runs.
Grier’s best friends will be each of these guys early on as they can help take some early pressure off of him and carry the load themselves for a little bit.
5. ESPN Has Already Started but let Them Hate
Yes it’s just mid April, but the ESPN FPI (football percentage index) has already predicted the Mountaineers to have no more than six wins and a losing conference record. Vegas has already put West Virginia as a 4-point underdog against Virginia Tech in the opener. ESPN’s big concern is that Grier has not played football in over a year and it will take him awhile to adjust after losing three starting offensive linemen and Shelton Gibson. Plus, they think the defense will be horrendous.
And that may all turn out to be true, but after watching the spring game and noticing all the little things that seem to be getting done, and believing what the coaches are saying, this season has a chance to be special.
Everyone knows how it works. Doubt WVU. Tell them they can’t. Tell them they will lose. Tell Grier he is not going to get going early. Just keep saying it.
I think the national experts will be in for a rude awakening this season.