Rating Some Returnees As WVU Continues The Climb
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Five and seven was a beginning but hardly the end-all to the Neal Brown era at West Virginia University.
So, what of the future?
As coaches begin scattering across the country to wrap up the first stage of recruiting before the early signing period of Dec. 18-20, we thought it might be fun to rate the returning players on their performance this past year, the importance of their role next year and their star value.
It isn’t as easy as you might think, coming off a season with a sub-.500 record, for there are far more players with bright futures than you might think.
Defensive linemen Darius and Dante Stills.
You can take these two in any order you want … Darius, who will be a senior, and Dante, who will be a junior, belong on this list on all levels of judgment.
It appears the only thing that could keep Darius from challenging for All-American honors next year is that he is weighing leaving early for the NFL, something that seems to be a long shot as he values playing at home for his state, with his brother and in front of his mother.
The two Stills, sons of former WVU great pass rusher Gary Stills, spent more time in opponents’ backfields than the referee, disrupting both the passing game and the run game.
They combined for 72 tackles, 26 of them for losses, while sacking the quarterback 14 times. The entire rest of the WVU defense had only 19 sacks combined.
COMMENT: “We think they’re pretty dang good,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “[Dante and Darius Stills are] really quick, explosive, powerful. They do a good job in their scheme of moving those guys around and creating different angles for your offensive line.”
Linebacker Josh Chandler
He was being asked to fill the shoes of Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long and when he opened the season with 14 tackles against James Madison it appeared he just might do it, but the production fell off some before he was injured and missed two games.
But in just 10 games the junior linebacker recorded 71 tackles, establishing himself as a man with a nose for the football.
If the junior-to-be out of Canton McKinley High in Ohio can stay healthy he is being countd upon to take a huge step forward.
COMMENT: “He’s probably of all the guys on the team, and it’s not quite to his nature yet but he’s going to be a guy they probably need to find,” WVU defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said heading into last season. “I would say by the middle of the year they’re going to try to find out where he’s at.”
Safeties Sean Mahone, Kerry Martin Jr. and Tykee Smith
It is difficult to separate the three safeties as they play positions toward which the defense seems to funnel ball carriers for tackles.
Mahone, a starter from the season’s first snap, led the team in tackles with 81 including five for losses while intercepting one pass and recovering a fumble.
Smith, a true freshman out of Philadelphia, proved to be an impact player over the second half of the season with 53 tackles, two interceptions, four passes broken up and fumble forced.
And Martin, also a true freshman from Charleston, didn’t get a chance to start until late in the season but wound up with 50 tackles and five passes broken up.
He also had the most spectacular series of plays of anyone in the Oklahoma State game when he made three TD-saving tackles on one possession, stopping Chuba Hubbard from breaking away. Hubbard was the nation’s leading rusher.
COMMENT: “Typical of a first-year player, I think there are a lot of things he’s got to get better at,” Koenning said of Martin before the Oklahoma State game. “So I’m not going to make excuses for the things he doesn’t do well. Probably, I’ve been as hard on him to do the basic things — him and [Sean] Mahone probably the most — because I know those are guys that are moving down the road and for the future. I think that they’re like sponges a little bit — that they’ll absorb it and it’s important to them.
“Some guys that you coach, and you all know people like this in your life I think, some people you can tell them stuff and you know it goes in one ear and out the other and you can tell that you’re wasting your time. Those two guys really sponge things. Kerry still remembers things we haven’t run since the first week of the season. So if I put something in and I’m going to call it something different, I can’t call it something different because he remembers it.”
Cornerback Nicktroy Fortune
Fortune, a true freshman last year, found himself behind starting senior Keith Washington but he still wound up getting big time experience and showed the kind of ability that makes you believe he is going to be the key pass defender in next year’s defense as both starting corners graduate.
He got his first collegiate start against Iowa State and the Cyclones tried to pick on him but he had a big game with eight tackles, the second most on the team. He had made only three tackles entering the game.
Fortune made his season by breaking up a fourth-down pass by TCU with 1:04 left to clinch the season’s final victory.
COMMENT: “I mean, he was one-on-one coverage for the win,” said West Virginia linebacker Shea Campbell. “That’s hard for a freshman, but Nicktroy’s going to be a dude.”
Quarterback Jarret Doege
The brother of a star quarterback under Neal Brown at Texas Tech and a transfer from Bowling Green, the coaches thought enough of Doege to redshirt him to keep two full years of eligibility for him.
He still managed to start three games and won two of them, which is an accomplishmet on a 5-7 team.
Doege showed poise under pressure, courage and an understanding of the offense as he completed 66.83% of his passes with seven touchdowns.
It would be wrong to expect Will Grier out of him but he showed he can be a winning quarterback in the Big 12, especially as he builds a better relationship with his receivers and as the offensive line grows.
COMMENT: Neal Brown on Doege after his first start: “I thought Doege managed the game well. I thought he was under control. He moved in the pocket and when he moved in the pocket, he made big plays.”
Offensive guard Josh Sills, running back Leddie Brown, wide receivers Sam James and Sean Ryan
This is an eclectic group of 4.0-star players, none of whom reached potential last year.
Sills had a excuse as shoulder surgery ended his season almost before it started. When he’s back full time this year for his final college go-round he will bring experience and leadership to a line that loses its only two seniors in tackles Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline.
Expect Sills to give the Mountaineers strength in the middle of the O-line this year as he joins Chase Behrndt and Michael Brown.
Leddie Brown was in an impossible situation last season. He was in a four-way competition at running back with Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and Alec Sinkfield behind an offensive line that couldn’t open any holes.
But as the season wore on, the sophomore from Philadelphia emerged as a potential star power runner and also showed soft hands so that he could be used in the passing game.
There was nothing in the statistics that would indicate great promise, but he passed the eye test and will go into camp as the top running back.
Redshirt freshman Sam James out of Georgia led the team in passes caught — and dropped.
James first season was promising in that he caught 69 passes but he never found a way to take advantage of his great speed, averaging less than 10 yards per reception and scoring only twice.
Part of that was that he never really got on the same page with quarterback Austin Kendall on deep balls and that he dropped a lot of open short passes where he could have broken loose and pressured the defense.
Sophomore wide receiver Sean Ryan transferred from Temple and much was expected of him but a shoulder injury that required surgery limited his participation and he finished with just 19 catches for 219 yards and no scores in eight games.
He did have one big time catch, though, that caused former WVU quarterback Rasheed Marshall to Tweet:
“Clinic tape type of catch by Sean Ryan on that 3rd down. Text book across the board. He was able to shield the db from the ball and get his arms extended to make the catch.”
COMMENT: Neal Brown on Sam James — ““I coach him harder than anyone else on the team because he has a huge ceiling. I coached him that way since I got here. I liked his high school film. I liked the film the G.A.’s made when they scrimmaged last year. I liked the talent you saw in winter and you saw glimpses of what was there. That’s why I coach him like that. You have to coach your best players the hardest.”