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Mountaineers Need Steady Progression

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On the heels of a dismal 4-8 season in 2013—and seated firmly upon the hotseat—head coach Dana Holgorsen was able to steer the West Virginia football program back in the right direction in 2014.

The Mountaineers rebounded to finish the regular season with a 7-5 record. Four of West Virginia's regular season losses came at the hands of top-12 teams, before suffering a loss in the Liberty Bowl to Texas A&M.

West Virginia will return 16 starters from last year, including PIAA all-time rushing leader Rushel Shell, who will be the bellcow in Holgorsen's spread system.

Though much of the depth chart will stay the same, many large question marks remain at key positions, including quarterback.

Junior Skylar Howard started the final two games of last season after starter Clint Trickett was forced to retire from repeated concussions. Dual-threat freshman William Crest, who also received reps at wide receiver during spring ball, will back up Howard.

Holgorsen is understandably getting creative in trying to replenish a receiving corps that lost two players to the NFL Draft in seventh overall pick in Kevin White and seventh rounder Mario Alford.

The two combined to total 174 receptions (51 percent of the team’s total), 2,393 yards (58 percent) and 21 touchdowns (81 percent). 

Look for junior Dakiel Shorts (6’1, 200) to take White’s place on the outside, while senior Jordan Thompson (5’8, 176) will more or less replicate Alford in the slot.

With major losses on the outside and inexperience under center, Holgorsen will likely lean more heavily on Shell and company to burden a bigger load.  

“I want to takeover and be the motor of the offense,” Shell said in the spring when asked about taking on a bigger role. 

Shell carried the ball 164 times in 2014 while splitting carries with junior Wendell Smallwood (5’11, 205), who will continue to be a fixture in the running game. 

“Having those guys makes the team really versatile,” Howard said. “Having a really big power back like Shell is great. It’s a good dynamic with all of them.” 

Defensively last season, the Mountaineers’ 3-3-5 scheme outplayed their reputation as a sieve, ranking fourth in conference play in points allowed (27.1) and third in yards allowed (395.1).

The backbone of the 3-3-5 defense will be the secondary, which returns all key contributors from last year’s unit that held a pass-heavy conference to 231 yards per game.

“It’s not a secret that we have everyone coming back, so it’s going to be something special,” senior cornerback Terrell Chestnut said. “If we stop their receivers and slow down their passing attack and make the teams one dimensional then we can do something special.”

Upfront, coordinator Tony Gibson will need to find a pass rush after a 2014 unit that ranked 97th nationally in sacks lost their sack leader, Shaquille Riddick.

The graduation of linebackers Brandon Golson and Wes Tonkery leaves two open spots next to the 2014’s leading tackler, middle linebacker and Bethel Park product Nick Kwiatkoski.

MOUNTAINEERS TO WATCH
Breakout Star: After not catching a single pass since Week 2 vs. Towson, junior wide receiver Shelton Gibson made the biggest offensive gain for West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl, a 47 yard completion. The 5’11 speedster and former four-star recruit will look to make similar big plays this season in a much larger, starting role. 

On the Hot Seat: Howard, who is penciled to start Week 1, posted a completion percentage of 50.9 in  two 2014 starts  against Iowa State and Texas A&M, (who ranked 53rd and 103rd respectively in opponent’s completion percentage), leaving questions about his accuracy. If Howard isn’t able to get the job done, look for Holgerson to insert redshirt freshman William Crest.  

Newcomer to Watch: With a major void in past production at wide receiver, the Mountaineers are also hoping to receive quick contributions from true freshman Gary Jennings (6-2, 195). Jennings, a three-star recruit, has already been noted by assistant head coach Lonnie Galloway for his physical tools. “He doesn’t look like a freshman, body wise… Physically he is ready now.”

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