WVU Football Questions For 2018: Quarterback
Question 10 – Quarterback – If I had done this story on Nov. 2, with the future insight that WVU’s starting quarterback Will Grier would return for his senior season in 2018, West Virginia’s QB situation would have been the least of my worries for the Mountaineers heading into next season.
But what transpired on Nov. 3 early in an eventual loss to Texas reminded us all importance of depth, even at the quarterback position, where only one guy at a time typically sees significant action.
West Virginia headed into its week 11 game against the Longhorns with a 7-3 record, ranked No. 24 in the country with a scoring offensive that was 12th in the FBS ranks (39.0 points per game) and a passing attack that was fifth (352.1 yards per game).
If you’re bothering to read this story, you certainly know what happened against Texas. But to recap, Grier dislocated his finger and broke a bone in his hand diving for the end zone in the first quarter of a 0-0 tie. WVU lost Grier for the rest of the season, lost the go-ahead touchdown when the play was ruled a fumble, lost to UT and both subsequent games against Oklahoma (59-31) and Utah (30-14), and lost significant ground in the NCAA’s statistical category. The Mountaineers threw for a total of just 450 yards in the two and three-quarter games after Grier went out. Their final passing average plummeted from 352.1 yards per game to a final of 309.3, which was still 13th nationally, but a long way from the top five rating they did hold. West Virginia’s scoring dropped from 39.0 and 12th in the FBS to 34.5 and 22nd. And most importantly, WVU ended the season with a three-game losing streak, just the fifth time in the last 58 years it finished a campaign on such a skid.
How much would a healthy Grier have changed all that? Who knows for certain. But there’s no arguing that West Virginia’s offensive attack, which had passed for over 315 yards in nine of the first 10 games Will started, couldn’t manage even 140 through the air in the two he didn’t.
Grier’s replacement, Chris Chugunov, did the best he could, but the task proved too difficult for the sophomore who had only thrown 21 career passes until being thrust into the pressure-packed situation early in the Texas game.
But this article is supposed to be a look forward, not a look back, so we move ahead.
Certainly Grier’s return is huge for the Mountaineers of 2018. He likely would have been a second- or third-round NFL pick if he had declared for this year’s draft. By returning to WVU, he not only will get an opportunity to fulfill his unfinished college goals, but he’ll have a chance to be a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and then potentially a first-round NFL draft choice next spring.
Even though the 6-foot-2, 214-pound native of Davidson, N.C., played in just a few plays over 10 games this past year, he still finished with the fourth-best single-season passing total in Mountaineer history with 3,490 yards. If he had stayed healthy for all 13 games, he would have definitely challenged the WVU record of 4,385 yards set by Geno Smith in 2011. But as it is, Grier will have to be content to try to make a run at that record in 2018.
With four of five starters in his offensive line, three of the top four running backs and three of four starting receivers, Grier would seem to have the weapons around him to certainly equal and likely exceed West Virginia’s offensive success through the first 10 games this past season.
Not that the former Florida transfer can’t still improve in his second season as a starter at WVU. While his passer efficiency rating of 162.72, which includes a completion percentage of 64.4 percent, was fifth in the FBS this year and the third-best in West Virginia history, especially in the later portion of the season, he was a bit too boom-or-bust. His 34 TDs were the second most ever by a Mountaineer in a single season, again made even more remarkable because of his shortened stint, but WVU’s intermediate passing attack struggled some in Grier’s final couple of outings. He still hit plenty of big plays in the wins over Iowa State and Kansas State, but had some problems finding open receivers on shorter routes, which he was able to do more frequently earlier in the year.
So, not having to rely so much on big plays exclusively would be one area of improvement, and then obviously anyone who saw his crooked finger when he came up off the turf against Texas can attest that while Grier is incredibly tough, he needs to avoid putting himself in harms way as much as possible going forward.
Outside of a few nit-picky things, though, it’s hard to find too much fault about Grier’s performance this past season. It just got cut short.
As for his backup, though, Chugunov must improve greatly in the season ahead or quite simply West Virginia needs to find someone else more capable.
Fortunately the Mountaineers have more options to compete for the reserve quarterback job than they did last year. Other than Chugs, there’s no major college experience in the group, but Jake Allison, David Isreal and Trey Lowe all now will join Chugunov in the battle for positions in the pecking order behind Grier.
And don’t think this is merely a fight for a backup role in 2018. Whoever ends up No. 2 next fall will certainly be the leader in the clubhouse to replace Grier as starter once Will, a senior-to-be, graduates. So, even if Grier stays healthy through every game next season, this backup battle has more real-world ramifications beyond simply who gets a few mop-up minutes against Youngstown State and Kansas. Of course, history also shows us that traditional transfers and grad transfers can shake up a depth chart at a later date, but for now, the four quarterback behind Grier in ’18 are the ones we know will be in contention for the starting job in ’19.
A lot of observers believe Allison will ultimately win the competition to be next in line after Grier. But that’s based on reputation and high school performances, because he hasn’t gotten an opportunity to show what he can do in a college game yet.
A pocket-passer who stands tall at 6-foot-5 but is rail-thin 194 pounds, Allison was a four-star prospect coming out of Palmetto (Fla.) High School, where he was also rated the No. 8 best quarterback prospect nationally in the class of 2016. He signed with Miami (Fla.) after high school, choosing the Hurricanes over Alabama, Missouri and Tennessee. But after redshirting as a true freshman that fall (in which he watched from the UM sideline as the Hurricanes defeated WVU in the Russell Athletic Bowl), he decided to transfer out of Miami last summer, as he viewed that Hurricane coach Mark Richt was wanting more of a duel-threat QB.
So, Allison arrived at West Virginia in June of 2017, though as a transfer, he’s been limited to just practicing ever since. He’s displayed a big arm thus far, but neither the media nor public has been able to see him in scrimmage situations yet. Those opportunities to evaluate him will come this spring, and Allison will be eligible for game action next fall as a third-year sophomore.
Obviously Chugunov, who is a junior-to-be, will be in the mix with Allison at the quarterback position, but so too will another pair – David Isreal and Trey Lowe.
The 6-foot-1, 171-pound Isreal transferred to WVU from Butler (Kansas) Community College last summer. He led BCC to a 7-5 record in 2016, a year after guiding Blythewood (S.C.) High School to a 9-4 mark. Isreal was West Virginia’s emergency No. 3 quarterback through the first 10 games and then moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart after Chugunov became the starter. But because Isreal had a redshirt available, it was the Mountaineers’ hope that they wouldn’t have to use him any in 2017, and despite the injury to Grier, Isreal was not needed in game action. Thus he returns for 2018 as a redshirt sophomore.
And new to the quarterback room is Lowe, a true freshman from Bolivar Central (Tenn.) High School, who graduated from high school a semester early and enrolled at WVU in time for the current spring semester. Thus the 6-foot-3, 198-pound Lowe will get a jumpstart on his college career. Regarded as a quarterback who is a passer first but can also run, Lowe has a great football bloodline. His grandfather, Woodrow Lowe, is a member of the College Football Hall of Fame after an All-American career as a linebacker at Alabama (1972-75) and he went on to play 11 seasons with the San Diego Chargers in the NFL.
While Grier, whose injured hand and finger should be healthy enough to allow him to participate in spring drills when they start in March, obviously is a lock again as West Virginia’s starting quarterback, the battle behind him should be fascinating.