Depth Chart Dive II: WVU Spring Offense
We continue our look at the spring football depth chart at West Virginia with an examination of the offense. If you missed it, here is the first article in this series, which examined the defense. Remember that this includes only players currently enrolled — we’ll do this again during the fall after getting a look at the rest of the newcomers.
With Will Grier returning from the broken and dislocated finger he suffered against Texas, the starting spot couldn’t be in better hands. Grier showed no ill effects in the first part of the spring, throwing the ball with zip and accuracy. That’s vital because behind him there is no experience at all. After a tough couple of games at the end of the 2017 season, Chris Chugunov elected to transfer. He likely saw the handwriting on the wall as incoming transfer Jack Allison appeared to be creating an edge while sitting out his transfer year, but the fact remains that this is a position with both the best and the worst possible scenarios.
If Grier stays healthy, West Virginia will have a chance to have very good season. If he is sidelined, WVU will insert a backup with zero college snaps, as Trey Lowe, who was a member of this year’s signing class, only arrived in January. Both Allison and Lowe have promise and potential, but those are the lowest of building blocks to being from when compared to the savvy necessary to compete in the Big 12. If both can spend the spring, summer and fall learning and repping, they should set up a very interesting quarterback battle in 2019. If they have to play before then, things could get dicey.
Allison has the early nod on the depth chart, as he was in the program a year ago, and it would take a big push for Lowe to overtake him heading into the fall.
A much better mix of experience and developing prospects dot the roster at running back. Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway are both proven Big 12 performers, and should have no worries in divvying up a large percentage of this year’s workload. Listed third on the depth chart is Alec Sinkfield, a dynamic and shifty runner who had the coaching staff toying with playing him as a freshman a year ago. Fortunately for him, that didn’t occur, and he still has four years of playing eligibility remaining. He should be ready to move into the role occupied by Pettaway last year, at least in terms of number of touches.
That makes for a bit of a crowd at the top, but as always seems to be the case, injuries and other forms of attrition can open up a handful of snaps for others. Tevin Bush is listed as a receiver, and while he could get a designed play or two out of the backfield, walk-ons TJ Kpan, Lorenzo Dorr (a West Virginia Wesleyan transfer) Brady Watson will vie for that next man up role.
The loss of stalwart Eljah Wellman prompted the coaching staff to move Logan Thimons from linebacker, and in a bit of an unusual jump he’s already listed as the first teamer at this vital blocking position. Thimons has the physical ability, so all eyes will be on his technique and quickness in assimilating the offensive scheme. He’s backed up by in-state walk-ons Elijah Drummond and Joseph Turner, both of whom have the same in-state pride that Wellman brought to the table. While the names aren’t well-known, this spot looks to have good potential.
One other thing to keep in mind: While a number of players are listed as “tight end\fullback” on the roster, most of them have a specific role at one position or the other. This doesn’t mean that someone listed as a fullback couldn’t line up as a tight end or wingback, or that a tight end couldn’t appear in the backfield on a play or two, however. The flexibility between the positions is something that the coaching staff wants to keep, while also getting players more closely aligned with the spots that their skills dictate.
Last year, head coach Dana Holgorsen teased with several references to making tight end a bigger part of the passing offense. That didn’t materialize, as Mountaineer tight ends finished the year with one catch for one yard. This year, more bodies and more potential is in place, but it’s still a very long step from potential to productivity.
First on the depth chart is Trevon Wesco, who owned that reception from a year ago. He has the ability to be a combination player who can both block effectively and leak out to catch passes. That could make him more difficult to read and cover, but so far it’s been blocking that has been far and away his primary role.
Transfer Jovanni Haskins, who was a prime WVU recruiting target before signing with Miami, reversed that decision and come to West Virginia a year ago, sitting out the 2017 season. He looks more suited to be a deeper downfield pass catching threat, and he and Wesco could potentially give the Mountaineers a one-two punch. Incoming freshman Jesse Beal is an intriguing prospect, even at the not-so-tender age of 27. He’s giving football a shot after a ten-year baseball career, and at 6-6 and 250 pounds, has the size to get a shot. Matt Bezjak, heading into his third year in the program, rounds out the deepest position room the Mountaineers have had in terms of effective numbers in recent years. Still, it will take a commitment to attempt to involve these players in the offense, and a quick response in terms of catching the ball, in order for them to become anything more than an afterthought in the West Virginia attack.
The offensive line is always a tough position to gauge. Good numbers in the running and passing game reflect well on its performance, and the Mountaineers had those in 2017. However, there were also leakages in pass protection and spotty production in the game. Added in were questions of depth and leadership, which make this look at the 2018 early depth chart an important one.
The tackles appear set, with Yodny Cajuste on the left and Colton McKivitz on the right. Add in Kelby Wickline, who can flip to either side as needed, and the top three look stable, if not stellar yet. The development of redshirt freshman Tyler Thurmond will be critical in determining whether the Mountaineers can go four deep at tackle, or will have to rotate and patch with only three as it often did a year ago.
Guard is even shakier. Josh Sills will hold down the left side, while juco Isaiah Hardy, who was forced to play too early last year due to injuries, is currently pegged as the right side starter. Hardy’s spring progression is critical, as behind he and Sills there’s no one with any appreciable playing time. Chase Behrndt, who had a handful of snaps last year, and freshman Blaine Scott, who enrolled in January, are listed as the backups, which is a major cause for concern at this point in their careers.
At center, the picture is a bit brighter. Matt Jones returns in the starting role, and Jacob Buccigrossi returns from his second surgery in three years to hopefully provide depth. His playing time, though, was even more limited, which again raises specters of depth issues. He could also be a swing player and provide backup at guard, as could Wickline.
West Virginia split its depth chart into four listed positions this year. That’s more reflective of the actual way the offense runs, as there are two outside spots (X and Z) and two inside (Y and H) that need to be filled. Obviously, all four of those positions aren’t on the field on every play, so some natural switching can happen, especially with the slot roles.
David Sills has been “moved” to the H on the depth chart, but it won’t be a surprise to see him on the outside just as much. Still, his listing inside highlights the ability to move him around to different positions on the field in order to get mismatches for him, especially in the red zone. Behind him, speedy Tevin Bush brings a different skill set, and the ability to run jet sweeps reverses and quick screens from the slot.
Stalwart Gary Jennings mans the Y position, and despite all of the accolades Sills gets, is the most consistent receiver on the team, and might be the best. A year ago, he had 37 more catches and 106 more receiving yards than Sills, but it was the 18-1 touchdown reception advantage for the latter that brought the bulk of national attention. With those numbers, it’s unlikely that any other receivers get more than a handful of snaps inside, although experience is there with Druw Bowen and William Crest.
WVU must get more consistent downfield deep threats here, in addition to the obvious skills that Sills provides. Marcus Simms has great speed, and was an overlooked part of the offense last year, given the notoriety that Sills, Jennings and the departed Ka’Raun White gobbled up. He’s backed up at the X by Dominique Maiden and walk-on Chase Riley, but this is Simms’ position to lose — or more accurately, excel in.
Opposite at the Z, transfer TJ Simmons has been named the early leader. A fast transfer from Alabama, Simmons played mostly on special teams in his one season with the Tide. The coaching staff saw something from Simmons during his transfer season on the practice squad, and he will be under pressure to produce early. Reggie Roberson returns in a backup role, but again, it appears to be the Simms and Simmons show early on the outside, with Sills also lining up wide a good percentage of the time.
With proven producers Jennngs, Sills and Simms returning, West Virginia is in very good shape. If one or two more become reliable, the Mountaineers will have one of the best, and most versatile, receiving corps in the nation.