We sit at the doorstep of a new football season, an uncertain one, one unlike any before it and hopefully unlike any to follow.
It is a season disrupted by a pandemic that has shaken the very foundation of the nation, let alone college football. But at times like this, diversion is necessary and there is little better diversion than watching the local team play a football game each week.
And so it is on Sept. 12 that West Virginia will host Eastern Kentucky in a non-conference game, one played without fans in the stands, but nonetheless one of the most anticipated openers in school history.
It marks Neal Brown’s second season as head coach after he replaced Dana Holgorsen, and, despite facing a season of big time football with a not-ready-for-prime-time roster, won five games and lost seven. The 2019 season offered hope but not a bowl game, which would have boosted this year’s team, especially as you look back at the preparation it has had to endure.
So what is to be expected this season, a season that offers up only 10 regular season games? There’s a full Big 12 Conference slate of nine games and the lone non-conference game that will mark the start of the 40th season played in Milan Puskar Stadium, nee Mountaineer Field.
It’s a shame it can’t be a raucous celebration of brats and pepperoni rolls, beer and moonshine, but it is what it is, and so, let’s take a look at what this fall has to offer up.
It begins with senior defensive lineman Darius Stills, of Fairmont, the Preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and a preseason All-American. Stills inherited a legacy from his father, Gary Stills, a WVU Hall of Fame defensive end, and he’s a local kid out of Fairmont Senior High. Darius, in tandem with his brother, Dante, who is a year behind him as a junior but perhaps equal in skills, anchor what should be a defensive line that is the strength of the Mountaineers.
The biggest questions
No. 1: Does WVU have the kind of quarterbacking to compete at a high level in the Big 12, a conference that has been spitting out quarterbacks as Heisman Trophy winners the way a slot machine spits out money?
Neal Brown will play either former Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege or former Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall. Kendall had the job open last season, but Doege seemed to eventually wrest the job from him in the final weeks of the season.
The oddsmakers leaned toward Doege, who seemed a bit smoother and had more success over the final four games. But it must be remembered they were not versus as strong of competition as Kendall faced earlier in the year.
If the quarterbacks can carry the load at the highest level, the Mountaineers have a chance.
No. 2: How much will it hurt that former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who established the makings of an aggressive, attacking defense built around the defensive line, is no longer with the Mountaineers?
Koenning was accused on social media of abrasive and abusive actions by sophomore safety Kerry Martin Jr. and, after an investigation, agreed to part ways with the Mountaineers via a buyout.
Considering the improvement shown by the Stills brothers under Koenning and the improved pass rush, Koenning’s departure is a big hurdle to overcome as WVU goes into the season without a designated defensive coordinator after instead splitting the duties between line coach Jordan Lesley and secondary coach Jahmile Addae, a former Mountaineer safety.
No. 3: Can WVU find a running game?
A year ago, WVU did not rush for 1,000 yards as a team in one of the most inadequate performances of the modern day era. They entered 2019 with high hopes from their run game. They had an NFL quality offensive tackle to anchor the line in Colton McKivitz and three featured running backs in Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and Leddie Brown.
But injuries on the line and inexperience led to a terrible performance, and both McKoy and Pettaway had dismal seasons. McKoy has since graduated while Pettaway transferred, leaving Brown to carry the load.
Coach Brown, however, has seen signs of Brown becoming a feature back, and he also has had high praise for a couple of young backs in Tony Mathis and Alec Sinkfield.
If a rebuilt line with the likes of Michael Brown, Chase Behrndt and young James Gmiter makes expected improvement, the running game could be much better … but then again, anything would be an improvement.
Potential All-Big 12 Players
Darius Stills and Dante Stills, DL
They may be the best defensive tackle tandem in the country and they’re certainly the best brother tandem.
Dante was actually more highly touted coming out of high school than Darius, and while Dante has done nothing to say that was a mistake, Darius has driven himself to heights that only he and his brother thought he could reach.
Sam James, WR
Still a young receiver in just his second season, James worked hard in the offseason to improve himself physically and correct the freshmanitis he had a year ago which led to a number of dropped passes. Still, he led the team in receiving by an amazing 32 receptions, finishing with 69 catches for 677 yards.
That, however, could be considered a disappointing year as he averaged less than 10 yards per reception. No one expects a repeat of that.
James showed what he could do when he had the school’s fourth most productive receiving game in school history versus Texas Tech with 14 catches for 223 yards, surpassing anything done by the likes of first-round draft picks Tavon Austin and Kevin White.
Five players to keep your eye on this year
No. 1: Bryce Ford-Wheaton, WR
No one made more gains during the offseason than Wheaton as he sculpted his body and ran crisper routes. He has made a huge impression on coach Neal Brown.
“Bryce has had really good days except for one. He’s got talent. He’s got the size and the speed, he’s just got to put it together,” Brown said. “He’s a little bit further ahead than I thought he’d be and he’s had some big days.”
No. 2: Chase Behrndt, C
A year ago Brown and his staff asked Behrndt to move to center and he never really got a good grasp on the position. Eventually, freshman Briason Mays took over the job for a while, but he wasn’t physically ready for the challenge.
This year Behrndt has come to camp ready to prove himself. He’s won the center and will be the key to what has to be an improved offensive line, despite losing both starting tackles.
No. 3: James Gmiter, G
This is one tough kid. At 6-foot-3 and 300 pounds and out of a proven Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, program, Gmiter comes with all the standard equipment and runs on high test fuel.
Gmiter showed what he can do a year ago, starting 10 games, six at left guard and four at right guard. In eight of those games he did not give up a sack. The thing is, he came to WVU as a defensive tackle and spent his freshman year there, so he has a lot of room to grow at the position.
No. 4: Exree Loe, LB
Exree Loe was undersized when he came to WVU for linebacker but now has grown into the slot. He spent two years proving himself on special teams where he was, well, a special player.
He’s determined to succeed and has a knack for making the big play that gets you noticed. He could wind up being one of the unexpected plusses on this team.
No. 5: Dylan Tonkery, LB
Out of Bridgeport, it sounds silly to say he’s a player to keep an eye on because we all are familiar with him after his high powered high school career before he followed in the footsteps of older brother, Wes, who was a standout WVU linebacker.
But through his career, Tonkery has been on and off, even though he started 25 games over his first three years at WVU. He’s fought some injuries and was bouncing from inside to outside linebacker, different jobs with different physical requirements and abilities.
Now he is growing into the middle linebacker and is figuring things out.
“I think he’s starting to get a feel for the defense and fit,” Brown said. “He’s miles ahead of where he was last year at this time.”
Saturday, Sept. 26 at Oklahoma State
This is a tough assignment opening the conference season on the road against an expected contender for the Big 12 title.
It is important, though, because if this young WVU team can put in a strong performance or pull off an upset, it could launch them on a far better season than has been predicted.
On the downside, if they get blown out so early, there is no telling how they will react after what they’ve been through with the virus, the Vic Koenning affair and the like.
Saturday, Nov. 14 vs. TCU at Milan Puskar Stadium
OK, it is late in the year for this to be a key game, but it just may decide whether WVU can have at least a .500 season, which would be an accomplishment at this point in the team’s development.
You’d expect the Mountaineers to lose at Oklahoma State, at Texas, at Iowa State and at home to Oklahoma — they always lose to Oklahoma. You might expect them to win against Eastern Kentucky, Kansas, Texas Tech and possibly Kansas State at home, even though the Wildcats are picked ahead of them in the preseason conference rankings.
That’s four wins and four losses. They do play Baylor at home in the conference home opener, but there may not be fans — or not many fans — and it’s early in the season, so that could be a tougher game than you’d like it to be, especially with Baylor breaking in a new coach.
But TCU comes to Morgantown and is coming off a bad season. Should they not bounce back, that could make this a key game for WVU, maybe even a game that could determine whether they’re bowl eligible.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.