West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen knows that he has a special offense in 2018. So he’s doing everything he can to build a Big 12 contender on the fly.
The Mountaineers return Heisman-caliber quarterback Will Grier, who missed the final two games of 2017 with a broken finger. All-American pass catcher David Sills is also back, along with three of the top four wide receivers. Four of five offensive linemen also return.
While the offense is set to be one of the best in America, the defense needs help. The Mountaineers lost four starters on defense to graduation, including top tacklers Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White. Defensive linemen Adam Shuler and Lamonte McDougle also unexpectedly transferred.
But after realizing that the Mountaineers would be short defensively, Holgorsen went to the phones and pulled off several massive coups. Former Ohio State defensive back Josh Norwood and Michigan defensive back Keith Washington committed to West Virginia after junior college careers. Holgorsen wasn’t done there.
Former 5-star USC defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow filled the gap in the middle. He joined as a grad transfer. UCLA grad transfer cornerback Denzel Fisher joined the roster a few weeks later. Defensive lineman Jabril Robinson also joined the roster from Clemson, arguably the best school for defensive linemen in the nation. The Mountaineers are also getting a visit from Notre Dame grad transfer cornerback Nick Watkins this weekend.
West Virginia’s offense will be bolstered by two transfers who sat last season — wide receiver T.J. Simmons from Alabama and tight end Jovani Haskins at tight end.
Holgorsen saw need on defense, and has efficiently done everything in his power to improve the roster. More importantly, he put a tremendous amount of stock into the 2018 season.
For all the criticism, Holgorsen won 10 games with the Mountaineers two seasons ago. The 2018 season could be even better — maybe even good enough to challenge for the Big 12 championship.
Oklahoma is somewhat down after losing Baker Mayfield to the NFL. TCU and Texas are also replacing several important players. There’s a clear opening for an outsider to break in and steal a spot in the Big 12 title game.
And with what could be the best offense in the country, why not West Virginia?
Building on the fly
Winning a Big 12 championship would buy Holgorsen some gravitas, even if the Mountaineers lose a critical amount of talent to the NFL. That’s a huge gain for a coach who’s consistently been on the hot seat — fairly or unfairly — since joining the Big 12.
Of course, West Virginia is a place where transfers have been productive. Look no further than Grier, who started his career at Florida. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson also does a masterful job putting his players in good situations.
“I think we’re marked as a program that’s had success with those guys and will continue to be marked when it comes to those guys coming in and being successful,” Holgorsen said.
The Mountaineers still have plenty to prove, but the talent acquired this offseason was overwhelming. Pulling from some of the best programs in the country will only help West Virginia improve its roster. In effect, Holgorsen has been running his roster almost like an NFL general manager looking for free agent talent to bolster his roster.
There’s plenty of improvement that needs to happen, too.
West Virginia allowed 445.5 yards per game to rank 107th nationally and 6.14 yards per play to rank 98th. More than 240 of those yards per game were through the air. Losing top safety White won’t help.
However, Holgorsen is playing a numbers game. If Watkins picks West Virginia, that will be four new additions in the secondary. It doesn’t hurt that two starters are already coming back. Between those players, and a couple of experienced backups, it seems statistically probable that there will be quick improvement.
The 2018 season is an important one at West Virginia. Count on Holgorsen to do everything in his power to maximize it.