West Virginia has a trump card heading into next season. Quarterback Will Grier is arguably the best returning quarterback in the entire nation.
However, work done in recruiting will be equally as important heading into 2018.
With a star quarterback and two All-America-caliber wide receivers coming back, the Mountaineers’ offense will be elite next season. Coach Dana Holgorsen focused on the defensive side of the ball, and found immediate contributors in the recruiting class.
The Mountaineers added junior college cornerback Keith Washington, and safeties Josh Norwood and Charlie Benton in 2018. All enrolled early. This trio is the most important unit for West Virginia next season.
West Virginia’s defense had major problems last season. The Mountaineers ranked No. 106 in total defense, and gave up 445.5 yards per game. Only Kansas and Baylor were worse in the Big 12.
In fact, the defense was the biggest difference between 2016 and 2017. A year earlier, West Virginia ranked No. 74 in total defense. It gave up 20 fewer yards per game. More importantly, the Mountaineers fell from 35th to 90th in scoring defense.
The results bore themselves out. Even though West Virginia was miles better on offense with Grier under center, the Mountaineers fell from 10-3 to 7-6.
Things could get worse in 2018. The Mountaineers rank 89th nationally in returning defensive production. West Virginia brings back only 57 percent of its starters after losing defensive stars Kyzir White and Al-Rasheed Benton likely to the NFL. Easily the biggest need comes in the secondary, where cornerbacks Mike Daniels and Elijah Battle are both gone.
Experience is important across the board, but perhaps even more so in the secondary. It’s hard to replicate coverage experience. Six interceptions and 25 pass breakups are now gone.
There is experience coming back in the secondary, but Holgorsen opted to buttress it with some immediate help.
Safeties Dravon Askew-Henry and Kenny Robinson are both returning starters. Junior cornerback Hakeem Bailey has a great chance to lock down one of the other cornerback positions after posting 35 tackles and 6 pass breakups in 2018. Otherwise, the Mountaineers have spots to fill.
West Virginia did note that Benton could play at linebacker instead of safety. However, he has the coverage skills to potentially play White’s old position, which calls for making plays near the line of scrimmage.
Norwood previously enrolled at Ohio State, but played an all-region first team type of season to earn a 4-star rating from ESPN coming out of the junior college. Norwood is big-time playmaker, and has a great chance to start.
Washington also has Big Ten experience. He enrolled at Michigan out of high school, and contributed on special teams after leaving high school as a dual-threat quarterback. At 6-foot-2, Washington boasts exceptional length for a cornerback.
The pieces are there for West Virginia to be an elite offensive team. Four out of five offensive linemen are back, including left tackle Yodny Cajuste. Three of the top four receivers are back too, and Grier returns to sling it to them. The offense should be one of the best in program history.
West Virginia’s defense has talent up front. All three starters in the trenches are back. Linebackers Dylan Tonkery and David Long Jr. also return. The big loss is Benton at middle linebacker, but West Virginia can afford to replace one playmaker.
However, Washington and Norwood have to be ready to start right away for the Mountaineers. Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has built elite defenses before in Morgantown.
If Gibson can do it again in 2018 with a new group of contributors, West Virginia can earn a trip to the Big 12 Championship.
The Big 12 appears down, as several teams are replacing big pieces on offense. With so much talent coming back, this could be the year for Holgorsen’s team.