MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–Another National Signing Day is in the books, and the West Virginia University football team fared well. The Mountaineers picked up 18 new recruits on Wednesday plus the nine athletes that enrolled in class in January.
Head coach Dana Holgorsen was pleased with this year’s recruiting class, but he wasn’t surprised with any of the pickups.
“We had a successful day today,” he said. “I know everyone across the country is probably saying the same thing. For the first time since I have been here, there wasn’t any surprises. Usually, there are a handful of surprises.”
Nine of the 27 new Mountaineers are enrolled in classes and adjusting well.
“Currently, there are nine guys on campus,” Holgorsen said. “You all know who those guys are. They are all doing well, and they are adjusting well. We haven’t been around them too much. They have been in the academic and strength and conditioning world.”
This recruiting class didn’t just consist of average athletes, there were some highly touted prospects among those new signees. Linebacker Brendan Ferns, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 220-pound linebacker out of St. Clairsville, Ohio, chose WVU like brother, Michael, a tight end who transferred from Michigan last season.
Ferns chose WVU over Penn State.
Then their was the younger brother of former Mountaineer standout Kevin White, Kyzir.
Holgorsen admits that his coaching staff recruited Ferns and White harder than any other recruit.
“We recruited those two guys harder than anybody we signed,” he said. “The truth of the matter is that those guys had a lot of good opportunities and options elsewhere. We battled, and we recruited hard. We were fortunate to get both of those guys. I think the difficult thing about it is that you are around them so much, and you know them so well. You may take for granted the fact that you know them so well, and you don’t recruit them as hard as you need to. I don’t think that happened with either one.”
Nick Kwiatkoski was a huge loss for WVU. The senior linebacker had 68 tackles and three interceptions during the 2015 season. Holgorsen thinks Ferns is similar to Kwiatkoski in some aspects but better in others.
“From a body type, they are (similar),” Holgorsen said. “Ferns is probably more athletic than Kwit (Kwiatkoski) coming out of high school. He is pretty athletic. Kwit turned into an unbelievably solid, tough-nose football player. That’s what he turned in to. When I got here, Kwit was committed, so I didn’t study him as much as I did Ferns. Ferns is athletic now. That guy does everything. He plays offense. He plays defense. He throws it, and he catches it. He runs it. He tackles people. That is impressive, but the body type is very similar.”
Holgorsen compares White to KJ Dillion.
“When KJ (Dillon) started as a freshman, he was a 170-pounds,” he said. “He turned into a 6-foot-1, 210-pound guy who you currently see. Kyzir is 6-foot-1, 210-pounds. He is maybe even bigger than that. He is game ready now, where it took KJ a couple years to get there.”
While WVU’s season ended last month, Monday marks the beginning of the offseason training regimen.
“We will start our offseason training on Monday,” Holgorsen said. “We will be around all the guys for about five weeks. We will be around the new guys and old guys for about five weeks, prior to spring ball. That’s when we will get a better feel for how those guys are doing. In the meantime, those other 18 guys signed today. From top to bottom, I think we filled a lot of needs.”
WVU lost several key offensive players including, star running back Wendell Smallwood, Cody Clay, offensive linemen Marquis Lucas and wide receiver Jordan Thompson. Even though those were key members of the offense Holgorsen believes he has a solid core of replacements waiting for their chance to shine.
“We have some good quality kids who are coming back, and they are going to take a shot at being able to fulfill those roles,” he said. “If you look at (running back) Justin Crawford from Northwest Mississippi, he has a lot of Wendell (Smallwood) qualities from a versatility point of view. He has great vision. He can hit the hole quick. He can make people miss, and he is a good receiver as well.
“(Wide receiver) Steven Smothers signed today. He has a lot of start/stop qualities. He is a bigger version of Tavon (Austin) coming out of high school. There has been a lot of comparisons and a lot of similarities between the two. They have known each other for a long time, and Tavon (Austin) is a big reason why Steven (Smothers) came here. He has a lot of start/stop qualities. He is a fantastic returner, and we have a need for a guy like that. (Tight end) Trevon Wesco, a tight end from Lackawanna College, will give us a bigger body, where we can continue to do some of the 11 personnel stuff that we have done. (Offensive lineman) Craig Smith is a big tackle from Tyler, Texas. He is originally out of the Miami/Palm Beach area. We had to recruit seasoned guys like that that could fill some of those roles on offense”
The Mountaineers have a lot more holes to fill on defense, but Holgorsen is confident he filled the slots he needed to.
“When we lose as many as the old guys who we lost, you have to fill those roles,” he said. “We didn’t lose a whole lot at d-line. We didn’t have to go out and recruit a whole bunch. Even though we lost five, we have a lot of experienced guys coming back at the linebacker position. We lost five, but we still have guys who have experience.
“We loaded up on four quality high school players at that spot. Obviously, (linebacker) Brendan Ferns was a big one for us. He is a little bit of a legacy kid, but he had a lot of options. He could of went virtually anywhere he wanted to. He decided to spend the next four years with his brother and the Mountaineer family. The secondary is probably the biggest need on defense. You lose Karl (Joseph). You lose KJ (Dillon). You lose Daryl (Worley). You lose Terrell (Chestnut).”
Holgorsen is excited for the experience of his new JUCO recruits and the impact that they can have immediately in the Big 12.
“We have a lot of young guys that are in the program,” he said. “We have been down the road of having to play freshmen in the Big 12, and it didn’t work out very well. That was probably where we attacked the junior colleges the most. It was headlined by Kyzir White. I am very familiar with him, and he is very familiar with us. I don’t have to go into that. With that said, he could have went anywhere in the country. He is 6-foot-2. He is 210-pounds. He is a fierce hitter. He can cover ground. He is fast, and he is always around the ball. He will have a pretty good opportunity to step in and do what KJ (Dillon) has done for us the last four years.
“(Safety) Toyous Avery and (safety) Jovanni Stewart are a couple of other guys who are around the ball a lot. They have made a ton of plays. Then there is the corner situation. We have a couple of seniors coming, but you need about four of them to be able to play. If you look at the bowl game, we were out there with our fourth, fifth and sixth corners. You need a bunch of people there who can play. We have a bunch of guys coming back with some experience, but we added two junior college guys. (Cornerback) Mike Daniels and (cornerback) Elijah Battle is going to be good for us.”
The departure of Worley and Smallwood left openings that Holgorsen and his staff didn’t plan on having.
“We were counting on those two guys to come back and play a big role for us,” he said. “They have played a lot for us. They have been three-year starters for us. We got a lot of those guys.”
While athletes are free to leave for the NFL after their sophomore and junior seasons, it is a rule Holgorsen isn’t a fan of. He believes getting a degree is the most important thing.
“The degree aspect of it is the most important thing,” he said. “If a guy gets his degree, starts for three years and has a year of eligibility left, then congratulations son, you accomplished what you wanted to accomplish when you came to school here. If a guy exhausts his eligibility, hasn’t graduated yet and wants to be a professional, then fine by me. I think that’s the point where they can go do that. Like I said, nobody cares what I think, but that’s what I think should’ve happened with those guys. Nonetheless, I will support them. I will follow them, and I wish them all the best. I hope things work out great, but we had to go out and find another back.”
With the loss of Smallwood, it’s a chance for Rushel Shell and others to step in to the running back position and shine.
“When you have your o-linemen coming back and all your wideouts can stretch the field, there are going to be opportunities for yards,” Holgorsen said. “I think Rushel Shell is going to step up into a role and carry the ball more. By signing (running back Justin) Crawford, that put us in a pretty good place. The corner is the same way. We were targeting one from junior college, and then when Daryl (Worley) left we had to target another one. You don’t want to line up a freshman. We have a bunch of freshmen at that spot right now.”
Running backs Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway are two recruits that Holgorsen believes will be valuable assets.
“(McKoy) He is longer, and he is very versatile,” Holgorsen said. “You can do some very different things with him. He has some Wendell qualities as far as being able to run and catch. He has good shake which is good. Pettaway is a shorter, shiftier front-line guy. They are both good football players, and I think we will probably end of needing both of them.”
The Mountaineers picked up two West Virginia natives this year. Holgorsen wishes there were more, but he emphasizes the importance to the walk-on program.
“We have (safety Dylan) Tonkery and (defensive lineman Reese) Donahue,” he said. “They are two quality West Virginia kids who are very deserving at being at West Virginia University and playing in the Big 12. I wish there were more, but there aren’t. They are good quality guys. Along those same lines, we have a good walk-on program here. We are actively pursuing guys to walk-on. We have three from Morgantown High. Kody Shearer is a good ball player. I’m starting to get to know these guys a good bit, because my son is over there. I am able to go over there and watch games and be around the kids.
“Obviously, that couldn’t happen in the past. Nathan Green from Brooke High is a good football player. I saw Brooke and Morgantown High play earlier in the year. He is a good football, so he is coming. Then there are four or five guys who are committed to coming to West Virginia. They are going to try and earn their way. Justin Arndt is a prime example of that working out for him. Darren Arndt is another guy. He is a prime example. He played in West Virginia. They both came in and did everything the way that they were supposed to, and those guys ended up being on scholarship and being contributors to this team. I think that is going to continue to cultivate itself. We have to make decisions from a scholarship point of view out of school, and we have to do the same thing once they are on our team.”
Holgorsen is confident in the cornerback situation for the 2016 season.
“We are in good shape right now,” he said. “(Redshirt junior cornerback) Rasul Douglas looks great. The longer the season went on, the better he played. I anticipate him being a guy. (Senior cornerback) Antonio Crawford gaining eligible was great, and he is as good as a corner that I have seen. (Redshirt junior cornerback) Nana Kyeremeh has been here for a long time, and he knows what to do. He is good. After that, you are looking at a whole bunch of young kids. I am not saying that any of these freshmen can’t come in play. (Cornerback) Jake Long can run. The cornerback (Sean) Mahone can really strike you. Those guys need to come in and compete. That gives you depth, and it gives you guys on top of each other. You are going to go through some corners in the Big 12. We average four to five corners in a game, whether it’s a series here or a series there. They even play on special teams as well.”
Holgorsen believes that the addition of Cody Saunders will add another quarterback into the mix and should make for a fun battle for the starting position.
“He is athletic,” Holgorsen said. ” He is 6-foot-2, 205-pounds. When you look at him, he doesn’t look it, but he is. He has a live arm. He is nervous as hell right now. He doesn’t know anything. I haven’t had any time to work with him. He has good athleticism. He is bright eyed. He is happy to be here. It’s funny.
“We height and weight all our quarterbacks, and they are all right around 6-foot, 210-pounds. They are all pretty athletic. Most of them are guys who are true dual-threat guys. (Freshman quarterback Chris Chugunov) Chugs probably isn’t going to run away from anybody. He has the most live arm of all of them. It’s going to be fun. We have five healthy, competitive bodies. We will work with them. We will coach them, and we will let them develop and play. It will be interesting to see how it plays out. I know one of them has an abundance amount of confidence right now based on that bowl game. He’s a senior and those other guys have their work cut out for them. It will be fun to watch.”
As of right now, Holgorsen says there are six quarterbacks competing for the starting position. Currently, none of them will be switching positions.
“I have (senior quarterback Skyler) Howard, (redshirt freshman quarterback William) Crest, (freshman quarterback David) Sills, Chugs and Cody Saunders right now. Then you have Austin Hensley back there as well. They want to be in the quarterback room.
“The next five weeks, we get two hours of film work with them. We get very little football instruction type stuff with them. We can get out there and watch (director of strength and conditioning) Mike (Joseph) run them around with strength and conditioning. They want to be in the quarterback room, so for the next five weeks, they will be in there with me and (offensive graduate assistant) coach (Michael) Burchett. We will drill them and quiz them. We will test them and see what their knowledge is. That’s step one, and then we have 15 days of spring practice in order to drill them and take snaps. Only one of them can take a snap at a time. I would anticipate David and William to get in there as opposed to sitting on the sideline 80 percent of the time.”
WVU inked four offensive linemen on Wednesday, but Holgorsen believes only one of them may have an immediate impact.
“I doubt we will talk about three of them for the next three years,” he said. “Craig Smith, the big kid, is an interesting story. He is a basketball guy. He is one of those 6-foot-6 basketball guys that are a dime a dozen. He gained some weight as a senior, and then he went to some junior college in Minnesota. He hated that, which was understandable. He played this past year at Tyler Junior College, which is really good football. He sat out a year, and then he played this past year at Tyler. He did a great job. He is coming into his own. He has been as big as 6-foot-6, 360-pounds. Right now, he is probably 6-foot-6, 310-pounds. He needs some weight room work, and we will get him caught up. Hopefully, he will get some stuff done at home, and then he will get a chance to compete in May, June and July. We need a tackle, and we have some options.”
Holgorsen believes the addition of kicker/ punter John Young could light a fire under redshirt junior kicker Josh Lambert this season.
“Josh has to get back to being the All-American guy we know he can be,” Holgorsen said. “Jonn Young went out to Las Vegas and won the national punting contest a couple weeks ago. He has a big leg. He said he is striking the ball as well as he ever has. He can kickoff. We have a couple candidates on campus right now with (redshirt freshman kicker/punter) Billy Kinney and (redshirt sophomore kicker) Mike Molina. They want to have something to say about that as well. We have four good legs. You need that many over the course of the season. You just have to have a lot of competition. (Special teams) Coach (Mark) Scott will chart all that stuff out this spring and in camp. Then we will make decision on who the best one is for all three of those spots. Two of the three are open, but we have to get Josh back to where he was. He made some good kicks this year. He had a tough year, and he overcame a lot of tough things this year. He has to get back to being that guy. That’s a Lou Groza All-American kind of guy.”
With this group of new recruits and the returning members of last season’s team, WVU is looking to make its mark in the Big 12.