The 2016 season was one of surprises for WVU fans. Supporters of the team saw the first ten-win season since 2011 and a big bowl appearance against Miami in the Russell Athletic Bowl. Although this bowl game resulted in a loss, the season was one of great plays, surprises, and of course, departures. Every team across NCAA has seniors, early draft entries and transfers leave the team. All of these result in either the loss of a starter or depth along a position. With all these new open spots among the first-string, underclassmen, signees and transfers fight for a starting spot. Once they acquire the said position, the questions begin; can they be as good as they one before them?
A list of contributors to the Mountaineers from the past season are now gone. Some of these are easy fixes, while others leave the team bare. The following players are ones that WVU will need to replace to compete and have another successful season:
Tyler Olorskey– Starting center, considered to be a top-three center in the 2017 Draft, went undrafted, but quickly signed by the Eagles.
Rasul Douglas– Starting CB and NCAA interception leader, drafted by the Eagles in the third round of 2017 draft.
Shelton Gibson– WR, most team receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, selected in the 5th round by the Eagles.
Dakiel Shorts– WR, most team receptions, signed as UDFA with Bills, multiple reports say he will make 53-man roster cut.
Rushel Shell– RB, started and was the leading TD rusher, second in rushing attempts among RB’s, signed as UDFA with Steelers
Skyler Howard– QB, led the team in TDs, passing yards, attempts, and completions. Second on team in rushing attempts, signed as UDFA with Seahawks for short stint.
Noble Nwachukwu– DT, sack leader, and strong defensive presence
Like mentioned before, some players are easier to replace than others. That will be the case with some of the players listed above. First up we have Tyler Olorskey, who will be sorely missed. He was the team’s main center for the past three years, and not many people outside of him got time. Matt Jones was the back-up last year, but people are seeing the job belonging to Rauelson.
Up next we have Rasul Douglas. While he was the NCAA interception leader, this one is not a big worry to me. Every year the Mountaineers have good DB’s leave and they somehow replace them. I am crediting Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson for this. He has implemented a “dawg” mentality in the defense, and it works! Among candidates for the replacement of Douglas are seniors Elijah Battle and Corey Winfield.
Here I am going to cheat a little bit and pair together WR’s Gibson and Shorts. Together they were responsible for 1,845 of Skyler Howard’s 3,328 passing yards. That is 55% of the passing production that is now gone and needs replacement. Former QB turned WR David Sills returns from his transfer and looked to be one of Will Grier’s favorite targets in the spring game. Another QB turned WR, William Crest Jr., is still with the team after deciding against a transfer. They both look to get reps along with Ka’raun White (best returning WR in terms of receptions and yards), Gary Jennings, and Marcus Sims (suspended against Virginia Tech). My prediction is for White to be the number one receiver followed by Sills. Simms has shown hope, and I expect a big year from him as well. A name to watch out for is Freshman Reggie Robertson out of Texas.
Rushel Shell never quite lived up to expectations given to him once he transferred from the school north of us that shall not be named…unless of course it is in a catchy tune…or song…you get the point. Every year it seemed like he got leapfrogged by a running back that started lower on the depth chart. In 2015, it was Wendell Smallwood, and in 2016, it seemed to be every single back on the team. This past season saw a lot of different running backs steal the show. Whether it be Justin Crawford, who led the Big 12 in yards per carry and rushing yards, Kennedy McCoy with his long electric runs, or Martell Pettyway who seemed to have completed a full year as a redshirt only to have it pulled out from under him in the last game. All these backs showed us that they could be starting, but this position will more than likely be held by Crawford. However, do not be surprised by other backs getting a lot of game time. Freshman Tevin Bush looked electric, zipping around the field during the spring game. It seems we can’t go wrong with whoever is in the backfield.
Skyler Howard had us all excited when he first got put under center in place of Clint Trickett, then an average season was capped off by a huge game in the Cactus Bowl. He set a record for most passing yards in this bowl game with a total of 532. But the next season left us with a bland taste in our mouths. He always seemed to be just good enough, we even sometimes wondered what he was thinking. No longer should we see the likes of Skyler Howard, as Florida transfer Will Grier will be under center for the old gold and blue this season. I am sure you all have heard of Grier. He is getting a ton of hype for the upcoming season, and he brings hope and great hair. His flowing locks just ooze potential as fans would not know what to do if he has a bad season. I am a big supporter of him and cannot wait to see what he can accomplish this season.
Last but certainly not least, we have Noble Nwachukwu. He led the team in sacks and was just one of those players who put intimidation into the opposing team. While he was not a star, his production will need to be replaced. I see the going by more of a committee this season, unless someone breaks out and is doing well. R. Donahue, X. Pegues, J. Lewis, and L. McDougle could all play this year, but I am tempering my expectations for all of them.
This season, WVU fans will see plenty of new faces. One position I held out to mention was the offensive line outside of center. Some starters return while other spots are up for grabs. The linebacker group are returning a lot of talent this year and give me no scare, as well as a safety duo that could remind fans of K.J. Dillon and Karl Joseph from seasons past. This season is full of hope for fans across the state and we hope to do just as well, if not better than the 2016 team. Dare I say it, but a National Championship could be in play for this Mountaineer team despite the lack of national recognition. It’s certainly a a stretch, but it’s in the realm of possibility. This is where WVU likes it best though, as the underdog.