As the sting of the Liberty Bowl loss begins to subside and the thoughts of West Virginia University football fans begin to drift toward spring practice there is reason for optimism. Defensively, WVU will return all but Linebacker Wes Tonkery. (Defensive End Dontrill Hyman will graduate but he started only 4 games in 2014, as did Brandon Golson, who also has used up his eligibility.) However, 2013 linebacking starter Jared Barber will return to action in 2015 after sitting out all of 2014 recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the Texas game in 2013. So, an argument could be made that Barber’s return to a starting role (which is likely) means that WVU essentially returns 10 of 11 starters on the defensive side of the field in 2015.
On special teams, Lou Groza Award finalist Josh Lambert returns, as does punter Nick O’Toole and long snapper John DePalma. The only key loss is Parkersburg’s Mike Molinari, who will depart the role of holder and kick-off specialist.
Offensively, WVU will have big shoes to fill in replacing both Kevin White and Mario Alford at wide receiver, as well as guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Stone Underwood appears to have an inside track on one of the vacant starting line positions – moving to center from guard while Tony Matteo slides from center to guard. Sophomore Grant Lingafelter appears to have a good bead on the other O line starting spot, although competition may ultimately reveal another outcome. Wide receiver appears to be more of an open competition, with players such as Daikiel Shorts, Devonte Mathis, Shelton Gibson, Vernon Davis, Lamar Parker, K. J. Myers, Ricky Rogers and Jacky Marsellus in the mix to join returnee Jordan “Squirt” Thompson (who seems like is on his eighth year of eligibility at WVU). Incoming freshmen Tavares Martin, Khalil Lewis and Jovon Durante will likely need some seasoning before stepping into a starting role, but anyone of them could possibly surprise and make the immediate jump to Division 1 starter.
That leaves perhaps the most critical position on the roster in flux – quarterback. With the departure of Clint Trickett, who will begin his quest to become a football coach, there may be no more interesting a position battle in the spring and during fall camp than that of the signal calling position. Let’s take a look at the candidates to become WVU’s next starting quarterback.
Skyler Howard (Ft. Worth, TX/Riverside (CA) Community College)
Jr., 6’-0”, 206, 56 completions in 110 attempts for 829 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs
By virtue of having started the most recent two WVU games (Iowa State and the Liberty Bowl against Texas A&M), and having played significant minutes in the Kansas State game, Howard can be considered the early front runner to nail down the starting spot. Howard showed the ability to keep plays alive with his feet in the roughly two-and-a-half games he played and also showed an ability to throw the deep ball accurately. However, in the Liberty Bowl Howard struggled with intermediate throws, often overthrowing open receivers, which is a cause for some concern. With a full year under his belt in Dana Holgorsen’s system Howard will have a better command of the offense as he goes into spring practice. That will allow him to focus on improving his deficiencies and getting more in sync with his receivers without having to assimilate the offense mentally at the same time. Although not of an ideal stature, physically, Howard demonstrated leadership ability in his brief starting stints and with a good summer of bonding with his fellow offensive players he could be a solid, if not spectacular, starter for the Mountaineers in 2015.
William Crest, Jr. (Baltimore, MD)
R-Fr., 6’-2”, 214, 3 completions in 4 attempts for 7 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs
Many Mountaineer fans thought that Crest had “burned his redshirt” when he appeared in the Towson contest. However, Crest’s season-ending shoulder injury qualified him for a “hardship waiver” per the 2014-15 NCAA Manual, Paragraph 220.127.116.11. (In summary, a “hardship waiver” can be granted when: (a) an injury or an illness is season-ending, (b) the injury/illness occurs in the first half of a season (with “half” not including any NCAA championship activity, i. e., “the post-season”), and (c) the injury/illness occurs when the player has not participated in more than the greater of three contests or 30 percent of the team’s scheduled contests during the season. A “hardship waiver” is commonly – but incorrectly – referred to as a “medical redshirt” by most fans, although that term doesn’t appear in the NCAA Manual.) In his brief stint against Towson – 23 snaps, 4 of them passes (3 completed) and five carries himself for 27 yards, including his first Mountaineer touchdown – a four-yard run – Crest showcased his physical skills and gave a glimpse of the potential many fans have ascribed to him. Crest has the better frame of any of the WVU quarterbacks anticipated to be involved in spring practice. Regarded by many WVU fans as “the future” at the position, Crest also will have a full year in the Holgorsen offensive system going into 2015 spring practice – at least from a mental standpoint (learning the plays, understanding the QB-to-coach and vice-versa communication requirements, etc.). A four-star quarterback and a Top 10 dual-threat QB according to several national recruiting services, Crest undoubtedly has the tools to potentially develop into a multi-season starter for WVU. Like Howard, he will have the summer to get in reps with his receivers and to develop the critical team chemistry that is so essential to success in today’s Division 1.
Paul Millard (Flower Mound, TX)
Sr., 6’-2”, 222, 93 completions in 168 attempts for 1,122 yards, 6 TDs,
As a Mountaineer Millard has appeared in seven games and has started three of them. For his career in Morgantown, Millard has primarily been a back-up. He has had his bright moments – two touchdowns against Kansas in 2013 and a sterling moment of success in 2012 when he briefly relieved Geno Smith (Smith had lost his helmet on a sack and had to sit out a play). Millard made the most of that short opportunity by firing a 37-yard touchdown strike to Stedman Bailey on a fourth-and-13 situation in Stillwater against Oklahoma State. However, Millard was largely ineffective against Oklahoma as the starter in the 2013 Big 12 opener in Norman (21-of-42 for 218 yards, 0 TDs, 1 INT) and gave up the starting role the following week against Maryland to the long since departed Ford Childress. By all accounts, Millard is well liked by his teammates and provides a steady, veteran influence in the locker room, which can be invaluable to younger quarterbacks and other position players. Millard is a married man and it is not easy balancing the demands of starting a family and playing Division 1 football. If Millard chooses to accept his redshirt and come back for a fifth year Mountaineer fans everywhere should be very appreciative of his dedication to the program. Particularly in spring practice and in fall camp, a veteran like Millard can be a tremendous asset to the Mountaineer program – even if he doesn’t see the playing field in the fall – by mentoring the younger quarterbacks.
David Sills (Elkton, MD – Eastern Christian Academy)
Fr., 6’-4”, 200
Sills is an early enrollee and is expected to begin classes when the second semester begins in Morgantown, so he will be a full participant in spring drills. Sills gained notoriety when, at the age of 13 in 2010, he was offered a scholarship and committed to play for then-USC head coach Lane Kiffin as an 7th grader. For his 2011 season Sills was named a MaxPreps.com 2nd Team Freshman All-American. In July of 2012 he led his team to the national 7-on-7 championship. He was the 10th ranked player in the state of Maryland in his class per 247 Sports. A three-start recruit by 247 Sports and Scout and with a four-star rating by Rivals, Sills has some ability to throw on the run but is more of the classic drop-back passer mold and appears to have the kind of arm that would work well in Dana Holgorsen’s passing attack. He has received tutelage from some of the best quarterback coaches any high schooler could dream of, including renowned QB guru Steve Clarkson. He will battle another freshman early enrollee – the less heralded but perhaps best “sleeper” QB in the 2015 class, Chris Chuganov. Expecting Sills – or Chuganov – to topple Howard, Crest or Millard for the starting job is a fantasy – there is simply too much to learn in one spring practice and one fall camp. Sills and Chuganov may both redshirt for 2015 to assimilate into the college lifestyle and to gain the benefit of a year in Mike Joseph’s weight program, but the battle between these two will be very interesting to watch. Might one of them transfer if he begins to separate from the other? Perhaps, but as of this date both are committed to one day becoming the starting WVU quarterback.
Chris Chuganov (Skillman, NJ – Montgomery High School)
Fr., 6’-2”, 190
Chris Malleo is a respected quarterback trainer. One of his pupils is UCLA’s Brett Hundley, so Mr. Malleo knows a thing or two about good quarterbacking. Malleo raves about Chris Chganov’s release, his footwork and his work ethic, but believes his greatest attribute may be his leadership qualities. In 2014, Chagunov posted these numbers for his Montgomery High School team in Skillman, NJ (about 20 miles north of Trenton): 196-of-358 for 2,855 yards, 29 TDs and just 3 INTs. In watching his high school senior tape Chuganov excels at leading his wide receivers across the broad spectrum of route lengths. Chuganov attended a one-day camp at WVU in June and committed within 24 hours. Chuganov was “discovered” by outgoing WVU QBs coach Shannon Dawson but his commitment to the Mountaineers remains solid.
Other QBs on the current WVU roster include Hurricane, West Virginia’s Austin Hensley (6’-2”, 185 Freshman) and Princeton, West Virginia’s Storm McPherson (6’-1”, 206, redshirt Freshman). Neither player will likely ever see a down at quarterback for the Old Gold and Blue during a game, but having native West Virginians at quarterback on the roster of the flagship institution of higher learning in West Virginia – players that understand what state pride is all about and can convey that pride to out-of-state natives that chose to become Mountaineers – can be another often under-appreciated and undervalued aspect of their presence on the roster. It is also an under-appreciated aspect of college quarterbacking that someone has to quarterback the scout team and that quarterback – if he can emulate the upcoming opponent’s quarterback and execute the offensive scheme of who WVU will next face – plays a crucial role in readying a team to face their next opponent.
All in all, the battle for the starting quarterback position in the spring of 2015 promises to be a much watched competition by WVU football enthusiasts. Its outcome will go a long way in WVU’s success, or lack thereof, during the 2015 football season.