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Has West Virginia solved the Big 12?

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Dana Holgorsen’s Mountaineers have been running the ball and playing defense more physically than much of the league, have they found a formula for perpetual league contention?

Baylor v West Virginia Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images

West Virginia has always been a bizarre fit in the Big 12. They have the program resources of a power five program but are located within a state of only 1.8 million people that has always relied on recruiting from nearby metro areas like Pittsburgh and Baltimore, or south Florida, none of which exist within the Big 12’s umbrella.

When they hired Dana Holgorsen to bring the Big 12 Air Raid offense the expectation was that they’d leverage their positioning in the league to do as most every other team in the league does and recruit the state of Texas. Yet today there is only one Texan on the two-deep, backup free safety Jovanni Stewart from the greatest defense in Texas HS history. Recruiting connections and alumni diaspora matter in recruiting and West Virginia’s resources in that regard are still centered largely in AAC country rather than Texas.

The Mountaineers have still been able to raise their recruiting profile, it just simply hasn’t been enough to make them as competitive in the Big 12 as they were in the Big East:

Despite the improved recruiting, West Virginia never seemed to field as effective teams under Holgorsen as they had under Rich Rod or Bill Stewart in the Big East. Most surprisingly, they’ve lacked great QB play since Geno Smith departed (after 2012) and Holgorsen has yet to recruit a HS QB that’s gone on to start a full season. With losing seasons piling up and the 2016 team looking at the replacement of an entire secondary that’d been the driving force of the 2015 season.

But then 2016 happened, the team broke through, and Holgorsen’s contract was extended. The Mountaineers have been slowly piecing together a formula for building rosters in Morgantown that can regularly travel west and win games in the Big 12.

West Virginia’s modern roster building strategy

Of the 22 projected starters for West Virginia next season, seven were JUCO transfers and three more were transfers from other power-5 programs. One of those JUCO transfers is David Sills, who originally came to West Virginia out of high school but spent a year at a California JUCO to chase his dream of being a QB before coming back to West Virginia to accept his role as a receiver.

Their talent level has been boosted in major ways by becoming a destination for transfers with left guard Kyle Bosch (4-star) from Michigan, prospective starting cornerback Corey Winfield (3-star) from Syracuse, and of course their starting quarterback Will Grier (4-star) from Florida.

None of those starters’ ratings are reflected in previous class rankings, once again pointing to the need for Bill Connelly’s idea of a “talent ranking” metric that measures the recruiting rankings of players that are actually on a team’s roster and two-deep in a given year.

Competing in the transfer market is actually a really strong play for a program like West Virginia that has the resources to hire some impressive staff but isn’t located in a talent hotbed. When players exit the JUCO ranks or are looking for a change of scenery or the chance to exhibit their talents for the NFL, the program which has the staff to maximize their remaining years and the depth chart openings to fill finally has a leg up on the rest of the competition.

Holgorsen’s offensive staff includes OC Jake Spavital, plucked from the deposed Sonny Dykes Cal Bear staff, and OL coach Joe Wickline who was pulled from the wreckage of the Charlie Strong era at Texas. Tony Gibson has of course become widely acclaimed on the defensive side.

West Virginia has a couple of other roster-building stratagems as well to help them start to level up and compete in the Big 12. One is to recruit to schematic fit, particularly on defense where Gibson’s unique 3-3-5 allows them to make the most of players that other programs are overlooking.

Their 2016 breakthrough came with a trio of undersized linebackers (two out of three last year were listed under 6’0”), a patchwork secondary of transfers, and a DL of disruptive tweeners like 6’2” 270 pound Noble Nwachukwu (40 tackles, 7.5 TFL, four sacks in 2016). They were also leaning on JUCO transfer QB Skyler Howard, once taken as a stopgap to help maintain depth on the roster while developing more talented options and then a two-year starter.

Finally they’ve really invested in their preferred walk-on program as a way to keep promising local kids who aren’t Big 12-caliber prospects at home, to potentially find some starting fullbacks and linebackers, and as a means to boost their depth and chances of finding some game-changing talents.

Because of the way they fit their players to specific schemes and their ability to supplement the roster with transfers and walk-ons, West Virginia was able to put a truly respectable offense (27th in S&P+) and defense (37th in S&P+) on the field in 2016.

The physical Big 12 team?

There’s no getting around the fact that Holgorsen’s best season that just occurred took place in one of the weakest years for the Big 12 this decade. Still, the Mountaineers won a lot of games and it wasn’t just a result of diminished competition. They beat every team in the league save for the Oklahoma schools, they beat former Big 12 member Missouri, and they beat Big 12 wannabe member BYU.

The identity that the Mountaineers are starting to settle on is becoming one of the few “defense + run game” teams in the league that can go be the more physical team in the trenches in a given week.

This has been a long yet fairly natural progression for Holgorsen, who set himself apart from the rest of the Air Raid coaching tree early on by embracing the run game, two-back schemes, RPOs, and play-action. Things really changed in 2015 though when Holgorsen determined to ditch the limited contact practice philosophy so prevalent in the Air Raid world and saw his defenses improve considerably as a result. Tackling regularly made for deeper and more physical defenses and the Mountaineers started to win some games.

The one hurdle the Mountaineers have not yet overcome since joining the Big 12 is beating perennial league favorite, Oklahoma. Holgorsen is 0-5 against the Sooners since taking over and last year’s 56-28 outcome knocked the Mountaineers out of the running for the Big 12 title and turned Bedlam into a de-facto championship game.

Within that game though, a cold weather contest that took place in the midst of snowfall, the Mountaineers had the edge in the trenches. West Virginia rushed for 388 yards at 10.2 yards per carry and though they also gave up 316 rushing yards to the Sooners that came at a 4.9 yards per carry clip. What killed the Mountaineers was an early 21-0 deficit, an unusual inability to make red zone stops, and four turnovers that included a defensive score and allowed the Sooners to run the ball 64 times while holding the ball for 39:54 of game clock.

While running the ball for over 300 yards on Oklahoma in losses is strangely common for the Mountaineers, it does suggest they can’t be too far away from the goal of being an annual Big 12 contender.

The 2017 Mountaineers

At a glance, the 2017 Mountaineers seem likely to take a step back from what the team accomplished in 2016. Besides the fact that the rest of the league is likely to improve considerably with the other top finishers all returning their starting quarterbacks, West Virginia has to replace their own QB, three of the top four passing targets, three of the top four tacklers, the entire DL, and CB Rasul Douglas and his eight interceptions.

Their schedule is also set up to knock them back down a peg with a November that takes them on the road to Kansas State, then back home for a game against the Longhorns, then back on the road to Oklahoma to finish the year.

None of that paints a picture of a team ready to carry-on their breakthrough from 2016 to contend in a much more challenge league landscape.

On the positive side of the ledger though there are some interesting aspects to this team that could allow them to surprise for a second year in a row. On defense they may just survive the loss of the DL and Rasul Douglas thanks to the infusion of Syracuse transfer CB Corey Winfield, the return of former bluechip safety recruit Dravon Askew-Henry from injury, and this new practice regimen which has borne out results for two years now.

One particular thing to watch for is the impact of “spur” safety Kyzir White, one of three White brothers and two that will play major roles for the 2017 team (brother Ka’Raun will be a starting WR). He won a starting role despite missing spring practices and had three sacks and five pass break-ups while playing a versatile role that he had hardly come into his own in.

At 6’3” 220 his play against the run and his abilities as a pass-rusher are such that it’s almost as though the Mountaineers are running a 3-4 defense, yet he can also do traditional DB things such as play deep zone or man coverage. His sack-strip here against Texas proved to be a game-winning play:

West Virginia will need him to continue his pass-rushing and for their secondary to be effective in the zero blitzes Tony Gibson loves (like in this clip) to help compensate for their losses along the DL.

The most intriguing dimension of the 2017 Mountaineers though is unquestionably transfer QB Will Grier and what this team might be able to accomplish by pairing him with RB Justin Crawford (1184 rushing yards, 7.3 ypc). The Mountaineers have a pair of tackles in Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz that have started 16 games between them in addition to returning starter Kyle Bosch at left guard. They also return Crawford’s backfield mate and escort Elijah Wellman.

Last year the Mountaineers had a pretty diverse offense but one of their more effective dimensions was going four-wide and running zone-read with Skyler Howard and Justin Crawford:

Those are some textbook, Wickline-instructed zone blocks that West Virginia is executing there with an overall emphasis on getting bodies on defenders and then allowing the defender’s movement to take them out of the play.

An enormous percentage of Crawford’s 300+ rushing yards in this game came on plays that looked more or less exactly like that. Howard wasn’t a brilliant passer with a big arm but he was scrappy and quick in the run game and that allowed Holgorsen to mix in a lot of QB run game over the last two years.

Will Grier offers a different but arguably superior dimension, he DOES have a cannon arm and one that can allow the Mountaineers to create Briles-Baylor levels of spacing stress on defenses. For instance, from their spring game:

They have FB Wellman executing a trap block as part of a “split zone” run concept while the receivers are all lined up outside the hash marks with the “outside” receivers even past the numbers. It’s not possible to get inside linebacker help underneath on these throws if you also want them in position to fill gaps up front against the run. Against this OL and run game, you probably want them up front but Grier’s arm may be enough to make teams question whether it might be possible to win like Oklahoma did while allowing big yardage in the run game.

Grier’s ability to make the simple reads and laser throws to these windows, in addition to adding more vertical stress in the passing game, can have every bit as much impact in creating running room for Crawford as the threat of a Skyler Howard keeper...if not more.

So this upcoming Mountaineers team may prove to have a few dimensions that could really set them apart in the Big 12. A physical, reliable defense, a physical run game, and a QB with an NFL caliber arm that allows the spacing and thus explosiveness of the spread offense to reach its zenith . Will that be enough to make them a surprise contender in 2017? One of many questions for what’s shaping up to be the best Big 12 season in some time.