WVU Football 2018: Five Most Important Players
MORGANTOWN — West Virginia heads to football camp in a little more than a month and they go there with high expectations but bearing the weight of a 7-6 season behind them.
That screams out a need for improvement, especially on the defensive side of the ball, and also in an area where they came up rolling 7s all season, that being luck.
As they head to camp, it’s time to look at their team in a slightly different way than normal.
Let’s look into not necessarily who are their five BEST players, but their five MOST IMPORTANT in players, the guys who have to come on strong and deliver.
That is a little bit different approach, for you won’t see wide receiver David Sills V’s name beyond this mention, nor will you see linebacker David Long’s name, for while each are among the best players in the nation, we take their performance as a given.
So let’s begin at the beginning and certainly the No. 1 most important player is no surprise:
No. 1 — QB Will Grier
Certainly there is no surprise here, for in modern football and especially the way Dana Holgorsen’s teams play it, the quarterback sets the tone for the team.
But sometimes you take for granted what he does, which well may have been what WVU fans were doing last season until Grier tried to dive for the end zone halfway through the first quarter against Texas and broke his hand.
After the surgery, not only the hand, but the Mountaineer offense, was put into a cast.
Without Grier, WVU was Kansas.
It had to change its total approach to football and just wasn’t built for that approach.
From that point, WVU was outscored 115 to 59 in all but eight minutes of three games with backup Chris Chugunov completing just 34 of 76 passes, 44.7 percent, while gaining only 450 yards with just two touchdown passes in three losses.
So, the No. 1 priority this year is to keep Grier on the field, even though he has more potentially capable backups in Miami transfer Jack Allison and some blooming freshmen whom they’d like to redshirt.
That means Grier must learn to tuck the ball only when escaping for his life and must take not the fastest route to the end zone or first down marker but instead to the sideline, for his ability and leadership on the field is irreplaceable.
No. 2 — LT Yodny Cajuste
This is Grier’s Secret Service protection, so to speak.
The left-tackle with a right-handed quarterback — and thanks to the miracles of modern medicine Grier still has that right hand to work with without problems — is the man assigned to keep him clean.
Most teams send their best blitzers from the left side in the form of a defensive end or linebacker because they come from the blind side.
Cajuste’s job: Keep them from reaching Grier.
It’s an underappreciated assignment, but probably the key assignment on the team and Cajuste, out of Miami’s Miramar High, which also sent quarterback Geno Smith to WVU, is a veteran of such wars, a preseason All-Big 12 pick by the four major preseason football magazines and selected as the best blocker in the Big 12 by one of them.
Cajuste wrestled with heading to the NFL last year but opted to return and the happiest man in town about it was Grier.
No. 3 — CB Hakeem Bailey
If you are going to win in the Big 12, you are going to have to control the passing game from the defensive side.
When you think of WVU, you think of passing offense and they had a good one last year, scoring 50 passing touchdowns despite losing Grier for nearly three full games.
Well, guess what. They gave up 50 passing touchdowns, too.
Bailey is going to be the left cornerback, who traditionally is the most picked up as it is in the area where the right-handed quarterback looks first and where he most likely will roll toward.
Who is Hakeem Bailey? He is one of a rising number of Georgians recruited to WVU, coming from Western Iowa Community College. He started 3 games last year and has made an impression to date in establishing himself for this job.
If he can shut the door on receivers, WVU has a chance. If not, if they finish 90th in the nation again in passing yards allowed, it will be a troubling season.
No. 4 — MLB Dylan Tonkery
Tonkery is the new man in the middle at linebacker, replacing the wise veteran and leader Al-Rasheed Benton.
The brother of former WVU linebacker Wes Tonkery out of Bridgeport, Tonkery emerged as a linebacking force last year, getting eight starts and finishing the year on a high note with eight tackles and 1.5 sacks in the Heart of Dallas Bowl loss.
He has been asked to put on weight and move into the middle, though, which is a key spot not only in stopping the run game but in calling defensive signals and alignments.
Last year, as bad as WVU was against the pass, it was worse against the rush, ranking 109th out of 129 teams in the country, giving up 202.5 yards game.
That makes stopping the run a priority and having a solid Mike linebacker as they call him is the start of that.
No. 5 — PK Evan Staley
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of WVU’s slide to a 7-6 team last year.
A year ago, quite frankly, West Virginia would rather go for the first down on fourth down than try a field goal.
First off, the Mountaineers had no range in its field goal kicking, only one of more than 40 yards and that just 43 yards by Mike Molina. They attempted only three from beyond the 40 all year.
Molina was injured after going five for his first eight and Staley, whose stronger leg had him kicking off, replaced him and did a solid job, hitting 6-of-7 tries, but none were from more than 36 yards.
The Mountaineers attempted 15 field goals all season yet went for it on fourth down 21 times. Fortunately, they were third-best in the nation at picking up the necessary yardage, getting the first down 16 of those 21 times.
But often three points on the board is better than just a first down, so it comes upon Staley to win the coaches’ confidence in his ability to kick field goals and stretch out their scoring range, especially in close games.
Not having faith in the field goal kicking also influences play calling, often on third down, and that can effect the ebb and flow of games.