Preseason primer: Mountaineers blend optimism with questions



MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s Year 2 of Will Grier, Year 8 for Dana Holgorsen and, perhaps, finally the year West Virginia reaches Thanksgiving with a shot at winning the Big 12.

As preseason camp opens Sunday, here are the key storylines:

Situational offense

More than delivering a so-called “Heisman moment,” Holgorsen wants his quarterback to produce the routine reads that keep drives in motion.

“I don’t give a crap about big-playing people. If you’ve got good players, those are going to happen,” he said. “I care about the efficiency aspect of it. Our third downs were garbage, and we were turning the ball over way too much.”

Garbage was defined as ranking 115th out of 129 teams in giveaways (26) and 111th third-down success, at 33.5 percent. (If that sounds like living dangerously, it was: The 18 teams below WVU in third-down efficiency averaged 4.1 wins.)

The quick glance at an offense that ranked 22nd nationally at 34.5 points belied Holgorsen’s frustration.

“We’re still 10 points off,” Holgorsen said. “Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were at 45 per game. If you want to be a great offense, those guys set the standard last year.”

Can Gibby reinvent 2016?

That defense eclipsed all projections by paving the way to 10 wins. But 2017 lived down to expectations, ranking 90th or worse in eight categories.

Tony Gibson’s unit desperately needs a bounce-back year to support a skilled offense. Two incoming grad transfers mitigated two outgoers on the defensive line, but knee injuries cost the linebacking unit a starter (Quandarius Qualls) and a key reserve (Brendan Ferns).

Shuffling in the secondary finds fifth-year senior Dravon Askew-Henry trying out the Spur, the most important and demanding position in Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack.

How much, how soon for Stills?
After an all-out recruiting push kept Dante Stills home, how quickly will the elite defensive end make a splash?

Jabril Robinson’s arrival from Clemson means Stills needn’t be thrown in as a first-game starter. Now it’s up to defensive line coach Bruce Tall to develop the Fairmont Senior product into a rotational difference-maker.

Reese Donahue, the junior from Cabell Midland, has 13 starts at defensive end but he’s better suited for a backup role.

Fishing for corners

In April, UCLA cornerback Denzel Fisher announced plans to attend WVU as a grad transfer. Yet he couldn’t sign at that juncture, and you knew the relationship turned dicey when Mountaineers coaches began pursuing Notre Dame’s Nick Watkins (who chose Houston in June).

Even after Fisher earned his degree this summer, WVU sources told me his chances of enrolling in Morgantown were muddy. Last week came verification that Fisher — after appearing in 23 games with the Bruins — would not be joining the cornerback chase at West Virginia.

Fisher wasn’t going to be a sure-fire starter, so the Mountaineers might have entered the season trusting Hakeem Bailey and Derrek Pitts anyway. (Both of whom are longer and possess more upside than 2017 seniors Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels.) Former Michigan signee Keith Washington provides the only serious competition, at least until the trio of Jacob Long, Sean Mahone or Jordan Adams begins showing a hint of promise.

Expect to see one of the safeties, such as Kenny Robinson or Josh Norwood, being cross-trained.

Where do the tight ends fit?

An offseason topic that seems talked to death, West Virginia has four tight ends available this season after having only one during 2017.

Former Musselman standout Trevon Wesco produced a sleepy two catches for a combined 7 yards during the previous two years before showing new fire this offseason.

“I didn’t realize how talented he was,” said Grier, surprised to see Wesco making yards after the catch this spring. “He was running through tackles and guys were bouncing off of him.”

Up to 270 pounds yet leaner, Wesco has ”been killing the runs and the lifts all summer,” receiver David Sills said.

Now more comfortable handling the duties of former fullback Eli Wellman, Wesco is more likely to be targeted on play-action passes into the flat. The key to WVU not tipping tendencies is to develop some skill-set overlap with Jovanni Haskins, who’s 30 pounds lighter and more of a field-stretcher.

“We know Jovanni’s going to be really good in the passing game,” Grier said, “and we’re bringing him along in the blocking game.”

Position battles

Center Matt Jones started 13 games as a sophomore yet opens his junior campaign No. 2 on the depth chart behind Jacob Buccigrossi, whose hard-charging rehab from last year’s ACL tear won over coaches.

Right guard Isaiah Hardy played 58 offensive snaps last season despite enrolling only a week before the opener. At 6-foot-6 and 335, he’s 30 pounds smaller than his competitors, junior college signees Mike and Joe Brown.

Steady stand-in Evan Staley, who made 6-of-7 field goals down the stretch in 2017, faces off against transfer Skyler Simcox, who showed more leg pop in his stint at Western Kentucky.

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