West Virginia Football’s Biggest Strengths In 2019: No. 9 – Position Competition

Jake Abbott
West Virginia linebacker Jake Abbott (51) breaks into the backfield

West Virginia Football’s Biggest Strengths In 2019: No. 9 – Position Competition

(Editor’s Note – We previously took a look at West Virginia’s top 10 biggest question marks heading into the 2019 football season. In the second half of this series, we turn our attention to what we perceive to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)

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9. Position competition – The 2019 Mountaineers aren’t the deepest WVU football squad in program history, far from it. But they still appear to have plenty of competition throughout much of the depth chart, and that’s a good thing.

Coaches always love such competition, because it pushes every player to perform to their utmost at every moment if they want to hold on to or contend for a starting job.

West Virginia offensive lineman Colton McKivitz (53) lines up a block

Because West Virginia has just three full-time starters returning from last year’s offense and four from its defense, there isn’t much of an established two-deep leading into 2019. Add in a new coaching staff, and there really are only few starting jobs that are locked in.

Now admittedly no one is going to supplant senior Colton McKivitz or junior Josh Sills on West Virginia’s starting offensive line. It also would be a surprise if junior receiver T.J. Simmons, junior linebacker Dylan Tonkery, junior nose tackle Darius Stills and senior spear safety JoVanni Stewart aren’t also on the field with the first unit for the Aug. 31 opener, provided all are healthy.

But after those six, there is competition pretty much across the board.

At wide receiver, Simmons may be written on the top of the depth chart in pen, but the others – George Campbell, Sam James, Tevin Bush, Ricky Johns, Randy Field, Bryce Wheaton, Sean Ryan, Winston Wright and Ali Jennings – all are definitely printed in pencil. The top four or five will be part of the rotation, and the individuals in that group are certainly subject to change. So if a receiver wants to see game action, he better perform in practice.

The same is also true at quarterback and running back. WVU will enter fall camp with three QBs battling for the starting job in Jack Allison, Austin Kendall and Trey Lowe. The job is still wide open, as head coach Neal Brown reitereated during last week’s Big 12 Media Days. The running backs should be a position of strength, as West Virginia features four – Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Alec Sinkfield and Leddie Brown – who have experience and ability. All will get opportunities this coming season, but that doesn’t mean the carries will be distributed evenly. The best will get the most touches. Some, if not all, could also flank out to a receiver position at times, giving an opportunity to use multiple RBs in an attempt to get as much talent on the field as possible. Freshman running back Tony Mathis may be too good to keep out of the mix as well.

Jovani Haskins is the only returning tight end with game experience, but redshirt freshmen T.J. Banks and Mike O’Laughlin have enough potential that Haskins can’t rest on his laurels.

Besides McKivitz and Sills, West Virginia’s starting offensive line at the end of spring drills consisted of Kelby Wickline at tackle, Chase Behrndt at center and Michael Brown at guard. WVU’s offensive line coach Matt Moore wishes he had more quality depth to truly push this group, but in reality, other than junior Jacob Buccigrossi, who can play center, and redshirt freshman Briason Mays, who can lineup at either guard or center, there aren’t any O-Line backups who showed in the spring that they are capable of challenging a starter.

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On defense, there appear to be a few players cemented in starting roles, but most spots feature competition. In the position where the starter may be decided, there should be a spirited battle for a backup job.

Darius Stills will be the first-team nose, with senior Brenon Thrift behind him, though freshman Jordan Jefferson could make a case for himself here.

Defensive tackle is a competition of strength, as senior Reese Donahue, a two-year starter, is being pushed by ultra-talented sophomore Dante Stills. Each admits the competition from the other is making both better, though the reality is there figure to be plenty of snaps for both in a rotation. Michigan grad transfer Reuben Jones is likely to factor into the depth chart somewhere along the D-Line too.

At defensive end, juco transfer Taijh Alston enrolled at WVU in January and spent most of the spring working with the first unit, but he has plenty of quality competition behind him in the form of Jeffery Pooler, Quondarius Qualls and Tavis Lee. The same is true at the bandit position, which is a rush linebacker in Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 defensive scheme. Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan emerged from the spring as the starter at the bandit, but converted linebackers Zach Sandwisch, Charlie Benton and Adam Hensley all are nipping at his heals. The Mountaineers will certainly want to rotate players at both the d-end and bandit, but there aren’t going to be enough quality snaps for more than two, so everyone is going to have battle if they don’t want to be relegated to the sidelines. Because the 4-2-5 is a new scheme to West Virginia, and the defensive end and bandit positions are new, both spots feature questions, but on paper, those positions appear to be some of the deepest on the team.

There isn’t as much competition for starting jobs in the second level of West Virginia’s defense, where Tonkery at middle linebacker and Stewart at the spear are almost certainly going to be starters, and sophomore Josh Chandler is a heavy favorite to be the No. 1 at the will linebacker. There is some competition behind them, though. Dante Bonamico and Kwantel Raines had been fighting to backup Stewart at the spear, but with the departures of Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts this summer at the two deep safety positions, Bonamico has moved back to free safety, leaving Raines as likely No. 2 at the spear. Jake Abbott and Shea Campbell are fighting for the backup Mike spot behind Tonkery, and Deamonte Lindsay is trying to hold off Exree Loe as the backup Will behind Chandler.

At cornerback, Josh Norwood started 11 games last year, while Keith Washington started seven and Hakeem Bailey started six. All return as seniors this year, though Norwood has been moved to safety to help fill the holes left by the losses of Robinson and Pitts. Though Washington and Bailey are the only experienced corners left, they had better not get too comfortable, as junior college transfer Dreshun Miller was pushing them in the spring.

The free and cat safeties jobs were thrown up for grabs last month when Robinson and Pitts, who had worked as the starters throughout most of the spring, each departed the program. Bonamico and Norwood were both moved back there to help shore things up, and they’ll now compete with Sean Mahone and Jack Long for the two starting spots.

There’s also competition on the special teams. Junior placekicker Evan Staley will be hard to supplant, but true freshman Kolton McGhee comes in with high acclaim. McGhee also had excellent high school credentials as a punter, and he figures to challenge walk-on redshirt freshman Evan Matthes for the right to replace graduated punter Billy Kinney.

So, while the 2019 Mountaineers admittedly have plenty of overall questions, they do appear to have enough quality competition to keep most working at 100 percent if they want to earn a spot on the two-deep.

Previously In The Series

Strengths No. 10: Mike Joseph

Big Questions #10: Opponent Strength     |     Big Questions#9: Defensive Front

Big Questions #8: Offensive Line     |     Big Questions #7: Return Game

Big Questions No. 6: Punting     |     Big Questions No. 5: Coaches

Big Questions No. 4: Wide Receivers     |     Big Questions No. 3: New Defensive Scheme

Big Questions No. 2: Safeties     |      Big Questions No. 1: Quarterback