With Martin opting out, uncertainty is heightened at WVU

The Big 12 Conference released its 2020 fall football schedule on Wednesday with WVU set to open the 10-game season at home on Sept. 12 against Eastern Kentucky.

MORGANTOWN — The only thing certain about the 2020 West Virginia University football season is uncertainty.

The potential to play this season took a large leap forward when the Big 12 Conference became the final Power 5 group to set parameters under which its season will run, that being a 9+1 schedule that includes the normal full conference round-robin and one home non-conference game.

While health issues continue to threaten the ability to play out the schedule, the conference’s announcement offered proof they intend to play and will do all they can to see that it happens.

But let’s put that aside for the time being as it is out of our control.

What we want to look at today is the team WVU will field in Neal Brown’s second season, a team unlike any other in Mountaineer history to play a season unlike any other.

West Virginia truly is the mystery team for the Big 12 as it begins to put things together, a mystery to their opponents as well as to themselves in a conference that is tired of being bullied by the Oklahoma Sooners.

Let us first of all understand that the Mountaineer team we all saw last year was hardly in the image Brown wants to create here. He was trying to build a Ferrari with used Model-T Ford parts, taking Dana Holgorsen hand-me-downs from a team that had lost its key elements from the year before and to transition into his kind of football program.

So, knowing that, we must understand that we really haven’t seen the offense Brown wants to run because he didn’t have the personnel to run it.

He performed a miracle in his last stop at Troy, going from a dreadful first-year team to one that would win 10 games and stun nationally-ranked powers over the next three seasons, but he wasn’t playing in a major conference, let alone one that included the likes of Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Iowa State, Baylor — you get the picture.

He spent most of the season rather than creating an identity simply trying to survive while unexpectedly winning five games. His offensive line nearly got the running backs killed and the offense huffed and puffed behind quarterback Austin Kendall, who had not played regularly for three years, and who spent most of his time trying to shake off the rust as often as he was trying to shake off the rush.

Toward the end of the year Jarret Doege, a transfer from Bowling Green, was used at quarterback after he was assured his redshirt season was protected, and he showed some promise but that only added to this year’s uncertainty for it’s highly possible that Kendall could make a huge stride forward benefitting from last year’s experience, especially with the knowledge that, at one time, he had the kind of ability that Oklahoma would recruit.

So there’s a battle at the key quarterback position, which one normally would say was key to any improvement the offense might show, except that the real unknown is that the offensive line that had so much trouble last year.

It is a group that wasn’t ready to play and lost its leader in Colton McKivitz, the only player on the roster drafted by the NFL.

The running backs, headed by Leddie Brown, may be all right, but we couldn’t tell behind the line last season, so that just adds to the mystery.

And the wide receiver group is talented but its success depends on who plays quarterback and how good the choice proves to be.

And, a month ago, one might have said that the defense seemed to offer the strength of the team, headed by the Big 12’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year in senior tackle Darius Stills and his potentially as good or better brother Dante Stills, but that all changed with a social media message.

Vic Koenning, Brown’s defensive coordinator, seemed to have things moving in the right direction last year until Kerry Martin Jr., a talented and promising sophomore safety, went online with charges of indiscretions on Koenning’s part that led to a mutual parting of the ways between the school and the coach.

Then Wednesday morning, WVU learned it will not only be without Koenning but without Martin, who announced over social media he is opting out of playing this season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, maintaining he will use it as a redshirt year and be back next season.

Now there’s a huge shadow over the entire defense, not only from a personnel perspective but from an attitude perspective.

In this day and age, it is becoming common for players to be challenging coaches’ authority and methods, especially in racially charged areas, and in the Big 12 alone there have been three incidents — one involving Koenning, one involving head coach Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State and a third involving Gary Patterson at TCU.

Brown had to scramble to reassemble his defensive staff and is trying to go it without a true defensive coordinator, which again creates another aura of uncertainty.

Then the shadow that is cast over the brotherhood on defense — certainly Koenning had to have his backers and Martin his — and how they will react to the change muddies the defensive picture even further.

The point is that Brown not only has to spend this coming month to month and a half putting together his team’s personnel, he also has to restructure its personality with a new QB and a different defensive approach.

In truth, Brown almost has to burn last year’s film, write that year off as time lost and give everyone a fresh start — players and coaches.

What’s more, he has to do it in a season with the schedule jumbled, with a pandemic lingering outside the locker room trying to find a way to ooze its way inside, with a hungry fan base who could have been a real asset this season but who won’t be allowed to reach its normal intensity as the numbers will be held down and the pre-game post-game festivities are sure to be limited, if not eliminated.

It’s a monumental task but Brown certainly is not alone in facing it for football programs across America are in similar situations, although Brown’s does seem to be more extreme in that he is a new coach with a quarterback competition, a rebuilding program and a coaching transition to deal with along with the health issues.

Should be fun, though, and, after all, that is what sports is supposed to be.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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