MORGANTOWN — “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder who you are?”
It would not be surprising if you heard new West Virginia head football coach Neal Brown singing that variation of the beloved children’s song if you passed him on campus, for it certainly fits his situation well.
This time last year, the Mountaineers’ quarterback Will Grier, began his Heisman Trophy campaign. Grier was surrounded on the field by almost as many stars as there are in the Big Dipper: wide receivers David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr., offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, and linebacker David Long Jr.
You look around now and, well, let’s just say it’s starless in Morgantown.
It isn’t that you can’t win with a team lacking star power. Hardly.
In 1972, the Miami Dolphins became the only team to go through an unbeaten Super Bowl championship season, and they did it with a defense nicknamed “The No-Name Defense.” Anonymity should not be confused with a lack of talent.
Still, when the Big 12 All-Preseason team rankings arrive don’t expect to see a lot of Mountaineers there.
But no one is panicking.
“I don’t have a lot to say about that,” Kennedy McKoy said. “I see a lot of good things here. There’s been a bunch of changes around here and everyone has taken it well. So, we’ll just let people say what they are going to say.”
The senior running back is one of those players who potentially could have star power, but he is also part of a deep group of running backs that include Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield — all of whom may very well wind up leading the conference in rushing while none of them get more than 700 yards.
The approach being taken within the confines of the locker room was best articulated by defensive end Reese Donahue, who could serve as a spokesperson for the President of the United States as easily a spokesperson for the football team.
“Star power is great. I get that,” Donahue said. “It’s a big wow factor for the crowd, but ultimately does one person win a football game? No. Does two? No. It helps, but it’s a team. It takes everybody. All this hype about not having star power, I don’t play into that.
“In reality, if you got three of what you want or four of what you want on the D-line, ultimately the coaches will roll in 10 or 12 players a game. You play 30-40 snaps and are gassed. One guy might not be as good as the other, but if the better player is playing at 80% and the other guy at 100%, you might as well play the guy playing at 100%.”
The best example of Donahue’s theory may be offered up in baseball. The sport has gone from using pitchers for 220 to 250 innings a year and looking upon complete games as an important statistic to having them pitch 180 or so innings and try to keep themselves within 100 pitchers per start.
Some managers believe that keeping pitchers fresh is so important that they have taken out pitchers in the sixth or seventh inning with no-hitters working through the rest of the game.
Wide receiver T.J. Simmons, a transfer from Alabama who is the leading returning receiver and most likely to take the role played by either Sills V or Jennings Jr., is one who believes just because there is no preseason hype that the players lack ability.
“We have a lot of good players who could be great,” Simmons said. “When we get out on the field we are going to show everybody that we have a team full of stars. I think we have a lot of unknown stars. Last year we had a lot of big names. We have a lot of sleepers this year.”
This, he said, could turn into a pocketable asset.
“Being underdog you got to fight for something,” Simmons said. “You know you got people ahead of you that you want to knock down. You got the big dog you want to take out. That gives us a chip on our shoulder and gives us an edge.”
So, which Mountaineer is most likely to wake up a star?
Offensive guard Josh Sills — a 328-pound redshirt junior lineman from Ohio — is probably the most likely, along with mammoth 6-7, 312-pound offensive tackle Colton McKivitz. Any of the running backs are also capable of a breakout season.
On the defensive side, either Dante or Darius Stills could make big strides in their respective second and third years, and it would not be surprising to see redshirt senior Josh Norwood, moved into Kenny Robinson’s spot at safety, become an impact player.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.