MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Neal Brown is still in the honeymoon phase of his West Virginia coaching tenure after his first spring as a Mountaineer. An era of good feelings doesn’t equate to a lack of potential concerns, though.
Brown enters the offseason with several questions that won’t be resolved until training camp, and some that may even carry over into the season.
Here are five of the most compelling questions that face the Mountaineers when they return for training camp.
Will Marcus Simms play for West Virginia?
The talented wide receiver’s future – and present — is shrouded in mystery. Simms was active in the first week of spring practice before needing to tend to a nagging hamstring injury. That absence morphed into what Brown termed a personal issue, and he wasn’t seen at practice since.
The Mountaineers certainly went through the spring preparing for life without Simms as redshirt freshmen Sam James and Bryce Wheaton saw practice reps that would have gone to him.
Simms would be a massive boost for a receiving corps that brings back very little in the way of experience. Without him, Mountaineer receivers have a combined 45 receptions returning this season from T.J. Simmons (28), Tevin Bush (14), Sam James (two) and Kwincy Hall (one). That’s one fewer than Simms by himself. He had 46 catches for 699 yards last season.
Simms was on Twitter during the spring game, cracking a joke about a crack-back block in the game. When a fan asked when he was coming back, Simms replied “I never left.” So at this point it seems Simms believes he’ll be here this season. Perhaps the better question is how much control he has over that outcome.
Who else will join the roster, and at which position?
West Virginia still has two scholarships available for this year’s class, and it’s a good bet they’ll be filled by transfers before the start of August training camp.
The defensive line looked good all spring, but it is a position where a team needs seven or eight guys capable of playing against uptempo Big 12 offenses that can gas big men quickly.
“Defensive line is one of the bright spots,” Brown noted following the spring game. “[But] we don’t have enough bodies.”
The Mountaineers added a pair of graduate transfers on the defensive line a year ago, with both Kenny Bigelow and Jabril Robinson making positive impacts.
If there’s a starting offensive lineman is available, West Virginia might also look in that direction. Colton McKivitz and Josh Sills are proven, and Chase Behrndt had a good spring at center. Even if we saw the starting five in the spring game, the Mountaineers have no more than seven trustworthy linemen on the roster right now. Depth is also needed here.
Is it time to accept that Austin Kendall is the starting quarterback?
No one looks like a starter just yet in the West Virginia quarterback race, but Kendall appeared to be the closest to the finish line in the spring game. The widely held assumption when he transferred from Oklahoma was that Kendall would eventually be the Week 1 starter, and nothing has happened to change that perception.
It’s telling how quickly Kendall has won over the locker room. After one of his first practices, the first guys to pat him on the back were defensive players. Sills has already invited him turkey hunting even though he’s not a hunter. Those things don’t equate to anything on the field, but it’s clear he’s already viewed as a leader.
While he’s not the starter yet, Kendall seems in position to win the nod fairly early in August. From there, it may be more interesting to see whether Jack Allison or Trey Lowe becomes the backup. As Kendall’s knee sleeve proves, both will need to be ready in case something goes wrong on the injury front.
What will be the position battle to watch in August?
Quarterback is the easy answer, but it probably isn’t the right one.
If Simms isn’t participating, the battle to be the No. 2 wideout becomes the most interesting to watch. But if he is practicing, the calculus changes since in that case it’s more about who the third and fourth options will be.
That would leave cornerback as the most intriguing position to watch, which it already might be. The top four players at the position – Hakeem Bailey, Josh Norwood, Keith Washington and Jordan Adams – are all seniors. Junior transfer Dreshun Miller should not be discounted from the mix, either.
It may be even more vital to determine who the fifth and sixth corners will be given that all four will be gone next year. Miller is already in-house, and it will be interesting to see if newcomers Nicktroy Fortune and Tavian Mayo are ready to play at the college level.
Who will establish himself as West Virginia’s biggest playmaker?
Last year’s offense had multiple playmakers – Simms, David Sills, Gary Jennings and tight end Trevon Wesco all filled the role at one time or another. The question after this spring is whether there’s any individual capable of filling a role previously shared by many.
The coaching staff is banking on Simmons. The receiver was protected in the spring game, sticking to the sidelines after showing what he could do with a 60-yard touchdown reception, 45 of which were provided by Simmons after making the catch.
Tevin Bush showed he can be a weapon last season, though it appears he will continue to do so in a specialized role rather than as an every-down player.
We’ve already seen indicators that the Mountaineers intend to be more run-oriented than in the past couple seasons, and there are four running backs capable of getting the job done if they get the holes. But of that quartet, Alec Sinkfield may have the most potential to be a game-changer with his ability to catch out of the backfield or line up in the slot.