West Virginia Football: Position-by-Position 2014 Spring Practice Preview
To say the 2013 season didn't go to plan for the West Virginia Mountaineers would be an understatement.
After sending off three of the best players in school history to the NFL, WVU faced a major rebuilding year that turned into a year-long quarterback battle. By the time December rolled around, the Mountaineers were 4-8, marking their worst finish since 2001 and the end of an 11-year bowl streak.
Dana Holgorsen's squad will now hit the reset button, and he might need a good year to avoid being axed.
The process will begin this spring with a new QB battle. However, all isn't as inauspicious as it seems. The Mountaineers will return a quality group of starters and should be much more settled overall than they were this time last year.
We'll take a look at how each of WVU's position battles could shake out through spring practice up ahead.
Spring Practice Start Date: March 2
Gold-Blue Spring Game: April 12
Key Losses: Ford Childress
Key Returners: Clint Trickett, Paul Millard
West Virginia will host another quarterback battle this spring, which isn't what Dana Holgorsen envisioned.
WVU's QB situation was one of the ugliest in the country last year, and the battle has been carrying on since Geno Smith threw his final pass in the 2012 Pinstripe Bowl. Clint Trickett, Paul Millard and Ford Childress all started last season, and none of the three was able to claim the job (in part due to injury).
Childress is gone (he transferred to a junior college in Texas), but his spot has been filled by junior college transfer Skyler Howard.
Howard, the No. 1 JUCO dual-threat quarterback from 2014, is already enrolled and looking to catch up with Trickett and Millard. But for those thinking he's the savior, just look at what happened last year with Trickett—it took some time for Holgorsen to become comfortable with his knowledge of the offense.
Regardless, a trio will fight it out once again. The battle will almost certainly carry into the fall, where three will become four with the arrival of William Crest.
He is viewed as the future of the program, though he could be bound for a redshirt this year.
Key Losses: Charles Sims
Key Returners: Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood, Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie, Cody Clay
Newcomers: Rushel Shell, Donte Thomas-Williams*
The best player on the roster last year was Charles Sims. He'll be departing from the running back corps, but WVU will still be stacked at the position.
Dreamius Smith was a strong second option for the Mountaineers as a junior, and Wendell Smallwood had a promising freshman campaign. The duo will be back after combining for 715 yards and six touchdowns.
They'll be pushed by 2011 starter Dustin Garrison and 2012 starter Andrew Buie. Garrison played sparingly last year, and Buie left the team before the season began, but both have loads of experience.
All four of those experienced backs will be challenged by a newcomer who could end up as the featured back. Rushel Shell, a former 5-star recruit, was set to start at Pitt in 2013, but he elected to transfer to WVU, where he was forced to sit due to NCAA transfer policy. He'll take the field as a redshirt sophomore.
Finally, 4-star recruit Donte Thomas-Williams will come in the fall and push for early playing time.
The spring will be vital for all these backs, from Smith to Shell, to show what they can bring to the offense. Aside from quarterback, this will be the battle to watch this offseason.
Key Losses: Ivan McCartney, Ronald Carswell
Key Returners: Daikiel Shorts, Mario Alford, Kevin White, Jordan Thompson, KJ Myers, Devonte Mathis, Shelton Gibson
West Virginia's receiving corps was a major unknown going into the 2013 season, featuring all new starters.
Each player had his ups and downs, but the outlook is much better now that the unit brings back some experience.
Daikiel Shorts was the pleasant surprise of the group, as he emerged as the leading receiver as a freshman. He'll be right up there once again, along with former junior college transfers Mario Alford and Kevin White. Jordan Thompson came on strong late last year, which has him poised to play a major role in 2014.
While they look to hold the four starting spots before the spring, there are several challengers behind them.
The one to watch is redshirt freshman Shelton Gibson, who came to WVU with a load of hype but didn't see any action in his first season.
Key Losses: Nick Kindler, Pat Eger, Curtis Feigt
Key Returners: Quinton Spain, Adam Pankey, Tyler Orlosky, Mark Glowinski, Marquis Lucas
Three starters will depart for West Virginia on the offensive line, but the unit could end up better than it was last year.
Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski will return at guard to anchor the new group, while Tyler Orlosky will take over at center with a few starts already under his belt.
Marquis Lucas will make the biggest move from left guard to right tackle, while Adam Pankey will move up to first string at left tackle, as reflected on WVU's pre-spring depth chart via Blue Gold News.
When all is set up front, the starting line will actually be bigger than it was last year. Several of these new starting linemen have received praise from coaches in the past, and now it's time for them to live up to those hopes.
That process will unfold this spring.
Several other players will be vying for spots in the rotation, including Russell Haughton-James, Stone Underwood and Marcell Lazard.
Key Losses: Will Clarke, Shaq Rowell
Key Returners: Dontrill Hyman, Kyle Rose, Christian Brown, Darrien Howard, Noble Nwachukwu, Eric Kinsey
The defensive line might be the biggest question mark for West Virginia heading into 2014.
Two of its three starters, Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell, are gone. That leaves Kyle Rose to lead the new-look unit.
The likely starters alongside him are Dontrill Hyman and Christian Brown, who both saw some backup action last year. That will have all three defensive linemen at 293 pounds or greater, which is actually ideal for a 3-4 front that is backed by several speedy linebackers.
Depending on the situation, WVU will likely cycle in Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, who are smaller, rushing ends.
Keep an eye on that duo this spring, as well as sophomore defensive tackle Darrien Howard, who was thrust into action late last year.
Key Losses: Tyler Anderson, Doug Rigg
Key Returners: Isaiah Bruce, Nick Kwiatkoski, Brandon Golson, K.J. Dillon (former safety), Marvin Gross, Al-Rasheed Benton
Even with the departures of Tyler Anderson and Doug Rigg, the linebacker position figures to be one of West Virginia's strengths for 2014.
Isaiah Bruce, WVU's leading tackler from 2012, is back after a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. He didn't rack up nearly as many tackles as his freshman year, but he did force three fumbles.
While he wasn't the Mountaineers' top playmaker at the position, Nick Kwiatkoski took over that role. He's back as a redshirt junior after amassing a team-high 86 tackles, along with three interceptions and two forced fumbles.
They'll be joined by rush specialist and senior Brandon Golson. The former junior college transfer blossomed as the season went along and ended up with four sacks and a team-high five forced fumbles.
New to the unit is former safety K.J. Dillon, as reflected on WVU's spring depth chart via Blue Gold News. He is one of the most gifted athletes on the roster and has been fighting for playing time behind Karl Joseph at safety. Now manning the "Spur" hybrid linebacker/safety position, he could be poised for a breakout year.
In addition to Dillon, there are several linebackers to keep an eye on this spring, including sophomore Marvin Gross, redshirt freshman Al-Rasheed Benton and junior college early enrollee Edward Muldrow.
Finally, don't forget about Jared Barber and Wes Tonkery, who will both miss spring practice.
Key Losses: Darwin Cook
Key Returners: Karl Joseph, Daryl Worley, Ishmael Banks, Jeremy Tyler, Terrell Chestnut, Ricky Rumph, Nana Kyeremeh
West Virginia will be without safety Darwin Cook, who overcame a rough junior season to turn in an outstanding senior campaign. He tied for fourth in the league with four picks, and his presence will be missed.
However, even with his departure, WVU will be in great shape in the secondary. Hard-hitting safety Karl Joseph will return, as will corners Daryl Worley and Ishmael Banks.
The spring will be important for safeties Jeremy Tyler and Ricky Rumph. They'll need to solidify their spots before the arrival of WVU's prized recruit Dravon Henry, who has the talent to see the field immediately.
Worley and Banks will also need to be on their game. While they look to be entrenched at the starting corner spots, they'll be challenged by junior college transfers Keishawn Richardson and Jaylon Myers. Richardson is already enrolled for spring practice.
Key Losses: None
Key Returners: Josh Lambert, Nick O'Toole, Michael Molinari, Mario Alford, Wendell Smallwood, Jordan Thompson
There won't be any turnover for West Virginia's special teams unit, which is a plus.
WVU knows it has a solid kicker in Josh Lambert. As a freshman, he missed six kicks in 23 tries, but four of those misses were from 50 yards or farther.
The Mountaineers are very well off at punter as well, where they'll return Nick O'Toole, who finished second in the Big 12 in punting average at 44.1 yards.
A host of kick and punt returners will be back as well, but the key for that unit will be ball security. The Mountaineers muffed and fumbled numerous punts, which was a major factor in them finishing last in the conference in fumbles lost.
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