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West Virginia's defense will be nasty, but can the offense avoid becoming a problem?

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1. Welcome back to the land of the living

For what it's worth, I like some of the moves he's been making. Promoting Keith Patterson to defensive coordinator in 2013 worked out pretty well until injuries and a complete lack of depth led to a late slide. And when Patterson left for Arizona State, I liked what Holgorsen did to replace him; he promoted safeties coach Tony Gibson to coordinator and brought on coaching veteran Tom Bradley -- Joe Paterno's final defensive coordinator -- as defensive line coach and senior associate head coach. [...]

Holgorsen's fate will be decided by whether he has enough talent, on the field and on his coaching staff. ... If WVU improves from 76th in the F/+ rankings to 50th, the Mountaineers could still be 2-6 heading into November. And by that point, the Holgorsen-on-the-hot-seat buzz will have very much taken over the narrative.

-- The big 2014 WVU guide

It's been an odd few years for fans of West Virginia, and I'm not even talking about the "became conference foes with teams in Kansas and West Texas" part. The Mountaineers got a taste of truly elite football -- they finished first in the 2007 F/+ rankings but lost to at home to rival Pitt and missed out on the BCS Championship game, then lost head coach Rich Rodriguez to Michigan -- and quickly grew intolerant of merely solid play.

Rodriguez's replacement Bill Stewart won nine games each year and led WVU to rankings of 31st, 27th, and 23rd, respectively, from 2008-10. But in an impatient attempt to segue from Stewart to the next great offensive era in Morgantown, athletic director Oliver Luck installed offensive whiz Dana Holgorsen as Stewart's head coach in waiting. Stewart didn't really like this very much, attempted to sabotage the move behind the scenes, and ended up "resigning" earlier than expected.

Holgorsen took over in 2011 and led a flawed team to a title in the even more flawed Big East, and a nearly perfect performance against a demoralized Clemson defense led to drastically unreasonable expectations for 2012. The Mountaineers raced out to a 5-0 start that year ... and then lost 14 of 20 games.

The talent Holgorsen had inherited -- receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, quarterback Geno Smith, etc. -- left, and the new guys couldn't produce at the same level. And a once-dominant defense (ninth in Def. S&P+ in 2007, fifth in 2010), collapsed to 53rd in 2011, then 85th in both 2012 and 2013. And with major turnover on offense, WVU thudded to 4-8 in 2013.

Instead of a serving as a head-coaching understudy for a year, Holgorsen ended up jumping straight into the role, and there were bumps, to put it kindly. 2014 was to be the season in which we determined whether he could engineer a rebound.

He did, at least to a degree. I figured WVU would jump back up to about 50th or so, but despite a late, injury-related slide, the Mountaineers finished at 40th. Receiver Kevin White had a breakout year, and the defense surged back toward respectability. There were still issues -- the run game was poor, and special teams were incredibly hit-or-miss -- but this was a sound team that showed well against Alabama and TCU, thumped Baylor, and only got manhandled once.

So what now? The defense looks like a true strength, but there's turnover at quarterback and receiver, meaning last year's shoddy run game might need to carry extra weight. Recruiting still isn't a strength but is improving, and while there are some brutal road trips on the horizon, there are enough likely wins on the home slate that another bowl trip is likely.

WVU got impatient with top-30 performances from Stewart, and while last season was a nice step forward, Holgorsen will need to take a couple more to feel safe in his job. But there's more hope now than there was 12 months ago.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-6 | Adj. Record: 10-3 | Final F/+ Rk: 40
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug vs. Alabama 2 23-33 L 61% 6.5 9%
6-Sep Towson N/A 54-0 W 99% 51.2 100%
13-Sep at Maryland 62 40-37 W 56% 3.6 44%
20-Sep Oklahoma 19 33-45 L 62% 7.0 25%
4-Oct Kansas 99 33-14 W 83% 22.4 99%
11-Oct at Texas Tech 82 37-34 W 46% -2.3 36%
18-Oct Baylor 10 41-27 W 92% 33.2 81%
25-Oct at Oklahoma State 75 34-10 W 71% 13.2 77%
1-Nov TCU 6 30-31 L 64% 8.4 9%
8-Nov at Texas 53 16-33 L 34% -9.8 8%
20-Nov Kansas State 26 20-26 L 55% 3.0 19%
29-Nov at Iowa State 92 37-24 W 66% 9.8 90%
29-Dec vs. Texas A&M 42 37-45 L 31% -11.3 3%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 32.4 41 24.4 41
Points Per Game 33.5 35 27.6 74

2. Losing ground late

The slide had begun before quarterback Clint Trickett's career ended two games early. Trickett missed the Iowa State game with a head injury, then retired from football because of such injuries. But his production had slid dramatically in his final three games. After producing a passer rating of 133 or better in each of his first eight contests (including a 139.9 against Alabama and a 186.0 against Maryland), Trickett managed just 107.3, 111.9, and 69.6 against TCU, Texas, and Kansas State, respectively. Opponents were adjusting, and there's certainly the possibility that Trickett's injury issues were already taking a toll.

  • Clint Trickett (first 8 games): 68% completion rate, 12.7 yards/completion, 5% TD rate, 2% INT rate
  • Tricket (next 3 games): 63% completion rate, 8.3 yards/completion, 1% TD rate, 5% INT rate

Opponents were adapting, Trickett was less sharp, and the run game still wasn't doing much. And despite steadfast defensive work, the offense's struggles eventually led to a late-season fade. Backup quarterback Skyler Howard took over against KSU and fared reasonably well, but the ball was rolling down the hill.

  • Average Percentile Performance (first 9 games): 70% (~top 40 | record: 6-3)
  • Average Percentile Performance (last 4 games): 47% (~top 70 | record: 1-3)

Howard was exciting but inefficient late in his two starts; against ISU and Texas A&M, he averaged 15.4 yards per completion but completed only 48 percent of his passes. Inefficiency led to a serious mid-game slump against A&M, and it is probably the biggest concern heading into 2015. The defense should again be sound, but the offense has a lot of questions to answer.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.84 72 IsoPPP+ 104.8 58
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 41.6% 64 Succ. Rt. + 108.3 37
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.9 84 Def. FP+ 99.0 77
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.1 85 Redzone S&P+ 98.1 69
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 25.8 ACTUAL 29 +3.2
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 12 52 49 58
RUSHING 45 80 64 93
PASSING 9 37 34 37
Standard Downs 44 41 47
Passing Downs 78 75 79
Q1 Rk 26 1st Down Rk 31
Q2 Rk 41 2nd Down Rk 46
Q3 Rk 90 3rd Down Rk 61
Q4 Rk 48

3. Running more vs. running better

With Geno Smith behind center and Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey (not to mention the underrated J.D. Woods) lined up wide, WVU ran just 50 percent of the time on standard downs. Holgorsen will always love the pass, but with more issues in the passing game, WVU's SD run rate moved up to 54 percent in 2013 and 55 percent in 2014.

This is a perfectly understandable approach, but at some point it would probably help if WVU were actually good at running the ball. Despite large splits and a defensive preoccupation with the pass, WVU ranked just 109th in Rushing S&P+ in 2013 and improved only to 80th in 2014 with the addition of four-star Pitt transfer Rushel Shell and the passing game's improvement. Efficiency was decent, and there were few negative rushes, but there was almost no hope for a big gain.

With Trickett and one of the most prolific duos in college football gone (Kevin White and Mario Alford combined for 2,392 receiving yards while fielding more than 52 percent of WVU's passes), the Mountaineers will likely be willing to run the ball even more frequently if they can actually do it effectively. Shell, Wendell Smallwood, and four-star redshirt freshman Dontae Thomas-Williams certainly seem to have upside, and the line returns four players with 47 career starts among them (50 if you include three from Michigan transfer and former blue-chipper Kyle Bosch). In theory, the pieces are in place. But they were in place last year, too. How much further run improvement is it reasonable to expect?

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Clint Trickett
281 419 3285 18 10 67.1% 26 5.8% 7.0
Skyler Howard 6'0, 202 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8532 56 110 829 8 0 50.9% 4 3.5% 7.0
William Crest, Jr. 6'2, 218 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8837 3 4 7 0 0 75.0% 1 20.0% 0.2
David Sills 6'3, 198 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8711
Chris Chuganov 6'1, 192 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8241

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Rushel Shell RB 5'10, 221 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9844 176 788 7 4.5 3.8 36.9% 3 2
Wendell Smallwood RB 5'11, 201 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8525 148 722 2 4.9 3.3 41.9% 3 2
Dreamius Smith RB
81 451 5 5.6 6.1 39.5% 3 1
Andrew Buie RB
55 232 2 4.2 3.3 36.4% 0 0
Dustin Garrison RB
20 92 0 4.6 3.7 40.0% 1 1
Skyler Howard QB 6'0, 202 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8532 18 172 0 9.6 5.9 72.2% 1 1
Clint Trickett QB
16 75 1 4.7 2.3 50.0% 7 4
Jordan Thompson WR 5'7, 176 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8060 6 37 0 6.2 8.8 50.0% 2 2
William Crest, Jr. QB 6'2, 218 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8837 4 33 1 8.3 3.2 75.0% 1 1
Dontae Thomas-Williams RB 6'1, 224 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9087







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Kevin White WR-Z
158 109 1447 69.0% 30.6% 69.6% 9.2 146 9.5 171.1
Mario Alford WR-X
112 65 945 58.0% 21.7% 58.0% 8.4 143 8.4 111.8
Jordan Thompson IR-Y 5'7, 176 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8060 70 49 598 70.0% 13.5% 64.3% 8.5 15 8.4 70.7
Daikiel Shorts IR-H 6'1, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8317 45 24 346 53.3% 8.7% 48.9% 7.7 45 7.9 40.9
Wendell Smallwood RB 5'11, 201 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8525 42 31 326 73.8% 8.1% 71.4% 7.8 -40 7.7 38.5
Rushel Shell RB 5'10, 221 Jr. 4 stars (6.0) 0.9844 26 21 140 80.8% 5.0% 46.2% 5.4 -104 5.3 16.5
Dreamius Smith RB
13 11 41 84.6% 2.5% 53.8% 3.2 -86 3.2 4.8
Cody Clay TE 6'4, 265 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8121 11 7 65 63.6% 2.1% 72.7% 5.9 -20 5.8 7.7
Andrew Buie RB
10 7 74 70.0% 1.9% 80.0% 7.4 -9 9.1 8.7
KJ Myers IR-H 6'2, 196 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8394 9 4 15 44.4% 1.7% 55.6% 1.7 -37 1.7 1.8
Shelton Gibson WR-X 5'11, 188 So. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9341 6 4 60 66.7% 1.2% 50.0% 10.0 12 11.3 7.1
Vernon Davis WR-Z 5'10, 175 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8403 6 2 38 33.3% 1.2% 16.7% 6.3 10 3.2 4.5
Elijah Wellman TE 6'2, 232 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7933 6 4 11 66.7% 1.2% 100.0% 1.8 -37 N/A 1.3
Darren Arndt TE 6'3, 248 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) NR
Devonte Mathis WR-X 6'1, 212 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8540
Jacky Marcellus IR-Y 5'8, 174 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8497
Ricky Rogers WR-Z 6'0, 201 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8742
Lamar Parker WR-X 5'8, 167 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8681
Ka'Raun White WR 6'2, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7883
Michael Ferns
(Michigan)
TE 6'3, 242 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9284
Jovon Durante WR 6'1, 180 Fr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9293
Stone Wolfley WR 6'4, 240 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8705
Jacquez Adams WR 6'0, 170 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429
Gary Jennings WR 6'2, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8389

4. Efficiency matters

Howard evidently had a strong spring and by all accounts strengthened his grasp on the starting job. Four-star redshirt freshman William Crest could be used in a utility role -- a little bit of QB, a little bit at skill positions -- but WVU will sink or swim with Howard.

This could be just fine. In three games, he didn't throw a pick, and he took just four sacks. He has excellent mobility, both in turning upfield or escaping the pocket long enough to throw the ball away.

Between Howard's escapability and the tendency of Shell and Howard to avoid negative plays, WVU should be excellent at avoiding drive-killing mistakes. Second-and-10 isn't good, but second-and-13 is worse, after all. Still, Howard wasn't very good at taking the shorter options, and a lot of his scrambling and throwaways came from that. Trickett was far from dynamic, but he took what was given to him. Second-and-4 > second-and-10.

The ability to find the guy camped out in a hole in the zone will be even more vital this year, as there's no White or Alford to bail the offense out on passing downs. Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts are both solid from the slot, and Thompson actually made some big plays for Howard (last two games: seven catches, 149 yards). But with these two on the inside and Shell and Smallwood serving as reliable targets out of the backfield, the efficiency weapons are in place. Howard will have to hit them.

There's still potential on the outside, mind you. Sophomore Shelton Gibson was a four-star recruit, and Crest really could become a fun all-around weapon even if he's not at quarterback. Plus, though he's not highly-touted, White's brother Ka'Raun signed out of JUCO last year. But there are proven weapons on the interior, even if the outside receivers are, like Kevin White himself in 2013, slow to thrive. [Update: Freshman wide receiver Jacquez Adams did not qualify and will not be with the team in 2015.]

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 108.8 3.22 2.77 40.7% 62.8% 15.9% 105.4 4.8% 7.3%
Rank 39 31 105 46 100 23 58 71 65
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Mark Glowinski RG 25 2014 2nd All-Big 12
Quinton Spain LG
38
Marquis Lucas RT 6'4, 318 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8121 17
Tyler Orlosky C 6'4, 297 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8799 16
Adam Pankey LG 6'5, 312 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8082 13
Kyle Bosch (Michigan) OL 6'5, 318 Jr. 4 stars (5.9) 0.9589 3
Tony Matteo RG 6'4, 296 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389 1
Michael Calicchio LT
0
Russell Haughton-James LT 6'5, 292 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8000 0
Stone Underwood C 6'4, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7783 0
Sylvester Townes LT 6'6, 298 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7988 0
Grant Lingafelter RG 6'5, 304 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8169 0
Tyler Tezeno LG 6'4, 317 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8603 0
Marcell Lazard RT 6'6, 310 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8672 0
Yodny Cajuste LT 6'5, 293 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8506
Matt Jones OL 6'3, 325 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8707
Rob Dowdy OL 6'6, 270 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640

5. No moving backwards

There was a pretty large disparity between WVU's Adj. Line Yards ranking (39th) and its Rushing S&P+ ranking (80th). Part of that was because of the lack of explosiveness (which doesn't have a lot to do with the line), and part of it appears to be because the Mountaineer line was good at keeping defenders from moving forward but not particularly good at pushing them backwards. Despite big backs, WVU wasn't very good in short-yardage situations.

But again, the Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line) was strong, and the sack rates were decent (mediocre with Trickett, great with Howard). With Howard, Shell, and Smallwood back, that probably won't change much. But we'll see how WVU deals with a little bit of turnover: Bosch comes in, and three starters return, but both guards -- all-conference performer Mark Glowinski and three-year starter Quinton Spain -- are gone. One would assume they were instrumental in keeping run defenders out of the backfield. [Update: Tackle Russell Haughton-James was dismissed from the team in August after being charged with burglary in April.]

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.89 89 IsoPPP+ 112.7 34
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.4% 27 Succ. Rt. + 121.7 11
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 27.0 122 Off. FP+ 95.9 115
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.4 73 Redzone S&P+ 130.3 4
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 18.0 ACTUAL 14.0 -4.0
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 68 22 13 34
RUSHING 65 22 10 53
PASSING 73 27 17 40
Standard Downs 19 12 29
Passing Downs 38 14 54
Q1 Rk 26 1st Down Rk 25
Q2 Rk 56 2nd Down Rk 42
Q3 Rk 37 3rd Down Rk 16
Q4 Rk 1

6. Angry and fast

West Virginia's defensive ratings were hosed a bit by how I measure special teams ... or more specifically, how I don't. Because I have not yet found the most effective way to split field position factors out of the ratings and assign appropriate credit to kicking and return games, WVU's defensive ratings were dragged down by WVU's abysmal punt returning. The Mountaineers were 11th in efficiency (Success Rate+), 34th in explosiveness (IsoPPP+), and fourth in red zone S&P+, but they still created awful field position for their offense, in part because of returns.

Still, while a ranking of 41st in Def. S&P+ was artificially low, it was still a drastic improvement over the No. 85 ranking from 2013. WVU went from 62nd in Rushing S&P+ and 102nd in Passing S&P+ to 22nd and 27th, respectively. Tom Bradley helped to shore up the line, and the secondary went from scattershot to great.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 110.4 2.83 2.76 35.7% 45.0% 22.0% 66.8 2.9% 4.6%
Rank 31 52 26 30 1 33 114 107 113
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Brandon Golson DE
12 28.5 3.9% 6.0 3.5 0 0 1 0
Noble Nwachukwu DE 6'2, 271 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8429 13 27.5 3.8% 8.0 2.0 0 4 0 0
Kyle Rose NT 6'4, 294 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8089 13 27.0 3.7% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Shaquille Riddick DE
13 24.5 3.4% 10.0 6.0 0 0 0 0
Christian Brown DE 6'2, 294 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8509 12 17.0 2.3% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Dontrill Hyman DE
11 10.5 1.4% 2.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Eric Kinsey DE 6'3, 278 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8410 8 3.5 0.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Darrien Howard NT 6'1, 295 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8884 8 3.0 0.4% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jon Lewis DE 6'3, 261 So. NR NR 8 2.5 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dontae Angus DT 6'5, 318 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8595
Tyree Owens DE 6'3, 264 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8392
Jaleel Fields DL 6'1, 284 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8312
Larry Jefferson DE 6'5, 225 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8568
Xavier Pegues DE 6'3, 285 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8266
Adam Shuler II DE 6'5, 250 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8492








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Nick Kwiatkoski SAM 6'2, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8073 13 87.0 11.9% 11.5 0.5 0 4 0 0
Wes Tonkery SAM
12 57.0 7.8% 10.5 2.5 1 4 0 0
Jared Barber (2013) MIKE 6'0, 232 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8323 10 57.0 7.5% 5.0 0.0 0 2 1 0
Shaq Petteway WILL 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8488 13 36.5 5.0% 5.0 2.0 0 2 0 0
Edward Muldrow WILL 6'3, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8600 13 25.5 3.5% 4.0 1.5 0 2 0 0
Isaiah Bruce SAM 6'1, 234 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7600 13 13.0 1.8% 3.5 0.0 0 1 0 0
Justin Arndt MIKE 5'11, 210 Jr. NR NR 13 10.5 1.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Al-Rasheed Benton MIKE 6'1, 235 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8707 13 4.5 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Jewone Snow MIKE
13 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Xavier Preston SAM 6'2, 236 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8449 9 1.5 0.2% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sean Walters WILL 6'2, 228 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8227
Marvin Gross WILL 6'2, 215 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8514
Hodari Christian SAM 6'0 ,225 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8526
David Long LB 6'0, 205 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8550








7. Wanted: just a little bit of a pass rush

In 2015, the pass rush will take a hit with the loss of not only ends Shaquille Riddick and Brandon Golson, but also Bradley, who took the UCLA defensive coordinator position. (That Holgorsen didn't try to make him co-coordinator or come up with something else to entice him to stay might tell you how much he likes coordinator Tony Gibson, huh?) Still, with three of five linemen and four of six linebackers (plus 2013 starter Jared Barber, who missed 2014 with an ACL injury and post-surgery infection), it's hard to worry too much about the defensive front.

WVU pulled off an impressive combination last year: tops in short-yardage success and 33rd in stuff rate. The Mountaineers were both stout and quick against the run. End Noble Nwachukwu and linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski are back, as are Barber and linebackers Shaq Petteway and Edward Muldrow. The play-making should continue apace.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Karl Joseph BS 5'11, 197 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8739 13 75.0 10.3% 4.5 0 1 3 3 0
KJ Dillon SPUR 6'1, 203 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8237 13 52.5 7.2% 7.5 0.5 3 7 0 0
Daryl Worley CB 6'2, 198 Jr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8489 11 48.0 6.6% 4.5 0 3 4 0 0
Dravon Henry FS 5'11, 198 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9353 13 40.5 5.5% 1 0 2 2 0 0
Terrell Chestnut CB 5'11, 188 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9133 12 30.0 4.1% 0 0 1 7 1 1
Ricky Rumph CB 5'11, 188 Sr. 2 stars (5.2) NR 13 19.5 2.7% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Ishmael Banks CB
8 18.0 2.5% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Jarrod Harper BS 6'1, 208 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8361 13 11.0 1.5% 1 1 0 0 0 0
Jeremy Tyler FS 5'11, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8212 13 8.0 1.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Dayron Wilson SPUR 5'10, 204 Sr. NR NR 13 7.5 1.0% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jaylon Myers CB
11 6.5 0.9% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nana Kyeremeh CB 5'11, 190 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8382
Khairi Sharif CB 5'8, 180 Jr. NR NR
Daejuan Funderburk SPUR 6'1, 192 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8665
Rasul Douglas DB 6'2, 197 Jr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8969
Tyrek Cole CB 5'10, 160 Fr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9287
Jordan Adams CB 6'1, 175 Fr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8640
Kevin Williams S 6'0, 185 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8414

8. So good in the back

If you're looking for a positive spin regarding WVU losing a couple of its best pass rushers, there's this: WVU's pass rush stunk last year, and the Mountaineers still swarmed the ball regardless. WVU dropped quite a few into coverage, utilized a smart, physical secondary, and placed in the Passing S&P+ top 30 with a No. 114 pass rush.

A little more pressure wouldn't be a bad thing (and in that regard, be on the lookout for two JUCO transfers at end: Larry Jefferson and Xavier Pegues), but the DBs will be fine regardless. Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon are nasty safeties (combined: 12 TFLs, 4 INTs, 10 PDs, 3 FF), and Daryl Worley developed into one of the Big 12's best corners. This unit has senior leadership (Joseph, Dillon and corners Terrell Chestnut and Ricky Rumph), young upside (safety Dravon Henry), and depth. It probably isn't on the Virginia Tech or Florida level, but it's one of the nation's 10 best secondaries. And unless Bradley was the true linchpin of the front six, this defense might be one of the nation's 10 best as well. (Okay, maybe 20 best.)

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Nick O'Toole 6'3, 228 Sr. 57 41.8 2 21 24 78.9%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Michael Molinari 84 61.4 31 2 36.9%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Josh Lambert 5'11, 215 Jr. 45-45 14-15 93.3% 16-24 66.7%
Mike Molina 5'8, 175 So. 2-2 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Mario Alford KR 26 28.6 2
Shelton Gibson KR 5'11, 188 So. 13 19.2 0
Jordan Thompson PR 5'7, 176 Sr. 12 4.3 0
Vernon Davis PR 5'10, 175 Jr. 6 3.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 60
Field Goal Efficiency 7
Punt Return Efficiency 125
Kick Return Efficiency 11
Punt Efficiency 96
Kickoff Efficiency 47
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 118

9. Great or terrible

Seventh in field goal efficiency, 96th in punt efficiency. Eleventh in kick return efficiency, 125th in punt return efficiency. WVU was great and terrible in the special teams department last year, so the No. 60 final special teams ratings feels about right.

In Mario Alford, WVU must replace one of the nation's best return men, but if the Mountaineers can improve to simply below average in punting and punt returns, maybe that will make up the difference. Regardless, Josh Lambert's return is a boon. He was asked to kick a patently absurd number of field goals last year -- 24 over 40 yards! Only 27 other teams attempted 24 field goals, total! -- and if Skyler Howard's efficiency numbers don't improve, he'll probably shoulder a heavy load again. But whether he's attempting 20 field goals or 40, he's good.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk
5-Sep Georgia Southern 67
12-Sep Liberty NR
26-Sep Maryland 56
3-Oct at Oklahoma 10
10-Oct Oklahoma State 43
17-Oct at Baylor 14
29-Oct at TCU 18
7-Nov Texas Tech 53
14-Nov Texas 36
21-Nov at Kansas 95
28-Nov Iowa State 86
5-Dec at Kansas State 33
Five-Year F/+ Rk 11.2% (43)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 38 / 47
2014 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -15 / -7.7
2014 TO Luck/Game -2.8
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 14 (6, 8)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 6.0 (1.0)

10. A brutal road stretch

WVU should expect to improve again defensively, and it might be enough to offset probable offensive regression. But even if the offense is a pleasant surprise, WVU probably won't be a factor in the Big 12 race because of increasingly insane home-road splits with the Big 12 schedules. Just as Oklahoma State and Kansas State get all three top teams at home, Texas and WVU get them all on the road. And the Mountaineers ALSO get KSU in Manhattan, too. That's ridiculous. I know you can't prepare for who's going to be good or bad at any point down the road, but perhaps the Big 12 should look into redrawing some of these rotations.

If WVU is again a top-50 team, however, bowl eligibility probably won't be an issue even if the Mountaineers go only 1-4 on the road. A poor home performance could mean defeat against Georgia Southern, Maryland, Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, or Texas, but odds are good that WVU will be favored in at least six of seven home games.

Between the road schedule and the turnover in the passing game, it's likely that WVU is looking at another six to eight wins this year. Mountaineer fans got tired of winning nine under Bill Stewart, so it will be interesting to see the reaction here. There are almost no seniors on the offense, however, and the ridiculous road slate will turn into a ridiculous home slate in 2016. The goal has to be building for a nice run next year, but that's only if a great defense doesn't implode because of graduation.

Things are looking up, but they're not. They're looking sketchy, but they're not. WVU is an interesting place right now.