MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — With the new year underway and Dana Holgorsen fresh off some serious air time in the ESPN Coaches Film Room, here are seven West Virginia football predictions for 2018:
Tight ends will become targets
Trevon Wesco’s two-year total of two catches for 6 yards is about what you’d expect from a beefed-up tight end who essentially grew into an extra offensive lineman.
Miami transfer Jovani Haskins, who possesses the long arms of a basketball small forward, will become the kind of tight end weapon WVU has lacked for years.
Two incoming freshmen face the possibility of early playing time. Mike O’Laughlin is skilled at 6-foot-5 and could make plays from the slot, while T.J. Banks is a thicker 6-foot-6 brand of H-back.
Dante Stills will emerge as a starter
Lamonte McDougle surprisingly won this season’s starting role at nose tackle. The emergence of four-star end Dante Stills will be more expected in 2018 as the Fairmont Senior grad instantly upgrades the defensive front.
Better O-line chemistry
With four starters returning, and center Matt Jones improving his pre-snap recognition, there will be fewer busts up front. Expect the running game to be situationally more effective, which should help improve WVU’s third-down conversion percentage, which was 112th in the FBS this season at 33 percent. That rate sank to 28 percent against opponents with winning records.
WVU wins a game as an underdog
The last time it happened was 2014, and the Mountaineers have lost 11 straight games as an underdog since. The law of averages must come into play eventually, right?
Hakeem Bailey and, uh, who?
With WVU desperately seeking cornerbacks, I project the mercurial Bailey as a 2018 starter on one side. His playmaking ability in practice didn’t translate to Saturdays, though as a junior I expect him to be less timid.
Opposite him, the starting job will be won by a newcomer. Second- and third-year players like Sean Mahone, Jake Long, Jordan Adams and Kevin Williams haven’t shown enough; otherwise we would have seen them in the rotation this season.
Dravon Askew-Henry on a comeback mission
From his embarrassing whiff on Khalil Herbert at Kansas to barely impeding Tyler Huntley’s touchdown run in the bowl, Dravon Askew-Henry was not himself this season. In what seemed a classic case of an ACL injury creating a larger mental hurdle than a physical one, the junior safety was downgraded from one of the Big 12’s top defenders to frequently being a liability.
I doubt we’ll consider him a liability in 2018.
Following another offseason to replenish confidence in the leg, Askew-Henry should regain the tackling form he showed his first two years. (Remember the lick he laid on Alabama’s DeAndrew White in the 2014 opener?) A return to his centerfield perspective at free safety — after injuries necessitated a move to Bandit for several games — could help too.
WVU will never have a better set-up
Oklahoma not only loses Heisman-winning three-year starter Baker Mayfield and fullback matchup nightmare Dimitri Flowers, but its junior-class losses could be huge, with dominant left tackle Orlando Brown and tight end Mark Andrews projected to enter the draft.
Oklahoma State absorbs heavy losses on the O-line at the same it begins life without the brilliant duo of Mason Rudolph and James Washington.
TCU must rebuild four-fifths of its offensive line, replace quarterback Kenny Hill, and find at least five new defensive starters. A sixth, junior defensive end Ben Banogu, is projected as a Day 1 draft pick if he leaves.
Texas had five juniors declare for the NFL draft, leaving coach Tom Herman with serious holes in Year 2.
Also to the Mountaineers’ benefit, the nine-game round-robin includes five home dates.
All that sets the table for West Virginia’s most promising opportunity at a Big 12 banner, meaning Holgorsen’s 27-27 mark in league games must improve.