With spring practice having concluded with the 2015 Gold-Blue Game in Morgantown last Saturday BlueGoldSports’ Data Analyst and Senior Writer Mark Fought breaks down each WVU football position group going into the long days of waiting for fall practice to begin. Today, the quarterbacks.
As West Virginia entered spring drills Skylar Howard was thought by most Mountaineer football observers to have at least a slight lead over redshirt freshman William Crest in the contest to succeed Clint Trickett based purely on experience. Howard stepped into action in the Kansas State game in Morgantown last season by necessity (due to a Trickett injury) and sparked what had been, to that point, a somewhat sluggish and sputtering WVU offense. Howard then started the Iowa State game and rallied West Virginia to a bowl bid-clinching victory in Ames and, when Trickett’s concussions history compelled him to give up playing the game for good, Howard started against Texas A&M in the 2014 Liberty Bowl game in Memphis. All told, in 5 games Howard completed 56 of 110 passes for 829 yards and 8 touchdowns. Howard’s QBR of 138.21 would have placed him fifth in the Big 12 when compared to conference quarterbacks who compiled the most passing yards for their respective teams in 2014 (trailing Baylor’s Bryce Petty’s 157.83, KSU’s Jake Waters’ 154.84, TCU’s Trevone Boykin’s 154.84 and Texas Tech’s Davis Webb’s 138.40).
As a true freshman Crest saw action only against Towson University in 2014, completing 3 of 4 passes for 7 yards and rushing for 27 yards on 5 carries, including his first touchdown as a Mountaineer. Crest was redshirted (or, more accurately, received a medical exemption) in 2014.
Two promising freshmen elected to forego their respective final semesters of high school to enroll in Morgantown in January to enhance their development as Division 1 quarterbacks by being able to participate in 2015 spring practice. Thus, the subplot of the spring at the quarterback position was which of the two – Chris Chugunov or David Sills – would nudge ahead of the other, if at all.
Going into spring drills the key question on Mountaineer fans’ minds at the quarterback position was whether Crest could close the gap, or draw even with or perhaps even move past Howard.
In speaking with the media prior to the second road practice in White Sulphur Springs, WV (at the Advocare Performance Center at The Greenbrier) head coach Dana Holgorsen stated that Howard was the clear-cut leader over Crest, which became apparent as the subsequent scrimmage unfolded in the hills of southern West Virginia. While Howard struggled with accuracy he demonstrated a much better command of the offense and appeared to have assumed the critical leadership role that most successful college quarterbacks possess. Crest showed good running ability and excellent athleticism, but his passing skills, particularly his read progressions, were nowhere near the proficiency level exhibited by Howard in Greenbrier County.
In the Gold-Blue game on Saturday at Milan Puskar Stadium not only was Howard still the clear-cut No. 1 signal caller, but Crest was deployed at multiple positions – receiver, running back and quarterback, and even fielded some punts (which were all fair caught). Does that mean that Crest has failed to produce at a level necessary to continue as the back-up at quarterback to Howard? Hardly. Crest remains the best option behind Howard because the gap between Howard and Crest is not nearly as wide as the gap between Crest and either Chuganov or Sills.
Let’s look at the top two 2015 WVU quarterbacks individually in terms of strengths and weaknesses as well as areas of improvement as spring practice ended.
Strengths: Offensive understanding, leadership, confidence
Weaknesses/Areas of Improvement: Accuracy, timing, consistency
Howard demonstrated a good feel for what his head coach and quarterbacks coach wants to accomplish throughout the spring. The communication between the junior from Fort Worth, TX and the head coach/quarterbacks coach appears to be solid. At The Greebrier Holgorsen noted that Howard had earned the respect of his teammates and that was evident on Saturday in Morgantown, as well. While Howard exudes confidence it is not cockiness, but rather an assuredness that he knows what to do within the offensive scheme and it is now just a matter of execution. Howard appears determined to put forth the effort needed to shore up his deficiencies starting in June when “voluntary” summer activities get underway.
While Howard has plenty of arm strength for deep throws and can put zip on the ball his accuracy needs work. Howard also has a tendency to overthrow open receivers, often gunning the ball when a little bit more air under the ball and leading the receiver a bit more appears to have been the better choice. These issues can be addressed during the summer, when Howard will have plenty of opportunity to work on timing with his receivers. During the summer he will get a better understanding of how his receivers run their routes, how they come out of their cuts and other nuances of the quarterback-receiver combination that are often the difference in the fall between completed passes and incompletions.
Strengths: Athleticism, attitude, keeping plays alive
Weaknesses/Areas of Improvement:Offensive understanding, read progressions, ball security
Spring practice allows the type of experimentation that can result in what Mountaineer fans witnessed on Saturday regarding the utilization of the redshirt freshman from Baltimore. Crest’s athleticism is a weapon that Dana Holgorsen can use not just at quarterback but at other positions, as well. At 6’-2” and 218 pounds (his measurables according to www.wvusports.com) Crest has the size and build to take some hits in other positions on the field while allowing Holgorsen versatility and flexibility in his play calling. (Imagine being a Big 12 defensive coordinator having to prepare for Howard AND Crest in the same backfield! Might a Crest-to-Howard – or vice-versa – completion be in store in the fall?) Crest has a burning desire to be on the field and with his battery of skills limiting him to quarterback may be a gross underutilization of what he could bring to the WVU offense. While Howard is no slouch at being able to improvise and keep plays alive with his feet Crest has even better capabilities in that regard, showing good open field running skills when plays break down or when he failed to find open receivers.
Despite his many positive attributes, Crest was obviously struggling at times this spring with his depth of understanding of the offense. At The Greenbrier several of Crest’s throws were to receivers that were nowhere near the ball. It could be excused as part of typical spring practice errors if a receiver had gone one way when Crest thought he was going to go the other way, but that did not appear to be the case in several instances. Like Howard, this summer will be a critical time for Crest as he learns more about his receivers and their tendencies, but gaining a better grasp of the offense – a component Howard appears to have mastered already – would go a long way in Crest’s development. He also appears to need work on checkdowns and going through the process of evaluating whether receivers have created separation or not – a process that occurs in tenths of seconds and is a crucial mental element of the quarterback position at the Division 1 level. Many D1 QBs have struggled with this aspect of the game over the years and some never quite get to a proficient level at it. If Crest can improve in this key area it will only enhance his chances of getting onto the field behind the center. Crest also needs to work on ball security when he executes designed QB runs or when receivers are covered and the only option is to take off.
Chris Chugunov and David Sills
With a limited body of work with which to evaluate the two freshmen a strengths-and-weaknesses analysis is virtually impossible. However, some early impressions can be shared for what they are worth. Sills demonstrated a surprisingly decent set of wheels on Saturday, gaining 71 yards on 8 carries, several of them on plays which appeared to be designed quarterback roll-outs/keepers. Chugunov appears to be more of a stationary type of quarterback than his fellow freshman, so that is an area to watch as the two players continue to develop. Neither had an inspiring Gold-Blue game performance from a passing standpoint – Chugunov was 1-of-3 for 23 yards and Sills was 1-of-6 for 6 yards. However, it must be remembered that both players gave up their final semester of high school to enroll early and are making the often difficult transition from life in the security of their parents’ homes to college life while simultaneously attempting to assimilate a new (to them) college football offense. (It remains to be seen if either or both will make their respective high school senior proms!) There simply isn’t a good sample set – yet – from which to draw any meaningful conclusions from the two freshmen, but both show promise for the future.
Hensley was the fifth Mountaineer quarterback to receive work at the position this spring. While it is likely that Hensley never sees the field in a game at Mountaineer Field or on the road the intangibles that he can bring to the table should not be overlooked. Hensley is a product of Hurricane, West Virginia. He can share the intense pride that West Virginia residents and alumni have for the Mountaineer football team with his fellow quarterbacks and other out-of-state teammates in the meeting room, in the locker room, on campus, etc. It is also a luxury to have a healthy number of “live” arms during passing drills and Hensley contributes in that way. He will also get work with the scout team when the season gets underway – a critical part of preparing a team for an opponent that is too often overlooked and underappreciated. Hensley is living his dream as a West Virginian wearing the WVU uniform – a dream that countless boys in West Virginia have had for decades and will for decades to come but will never get to realize.
In summary, Skylar Howard has essentially locked down the starting position for the fall and it is up to William Crest to draw closer to Howard throughout the summer, while the two freshmen – Chris Chugunov and David Sills – continue to develop and deepen their understanding of the WVU offense. Austin Hensley provides intangibles that round out the group of quarterbacks that saw action this spring for the Mountaineers. Princeton’s Storm McPherson also appears on the 2015 WVU football roster but did not appear in any of the scrimmages.