West Virginia Hot & Cold: Winding Down Yet Heating Up
By Brian McCracken
The conclusion of the annual Gold-Blue Spring Scrimmage means the 2016-17 athletic year is winding down at West Virginia University, but by no means is the excitement winding down around campus.
Spring football always gets people talking, and this year that was only compounded by the addition of Florida transfer Will Grier, who shined in the Mountaineers’ spring game.
Aside from football, West Virginia’s baseball program has been on a tear since Big 12 play began. After taking two of three from No. 3 TCU, it looks like the Mountaineers are a serious contender to earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996. There were a few minor areas of concern for West Virginia’s football team (we’ll dive into that shortly), but there will surely be a tremendous amount of anticipation surrounding the program for the next few months. The good news? Randy Mazey’s baseball program has the looks of a national contender and the Mountaineer diamondmen should give fans something to enjoy into June.
Hype Surrounding Will Grier – No one knows how Will Grier will pan out this fall, but if the spring game is any indication, West Virginia is going to be much better under center in 2017. The junior signalcaller looked extremely poised in his first public appearance as WVU’s quarterback and got off to a quick start in the spring game, completing 10 of his first 11 attempts en route to a 12-of-18, 203-yard performance. The scary thing is that Grier wasn’t working with his full complement of receivers (more on that shortly), but was still able to find holes in the defense and throw a myriad of pass catchers open. The most notable connection, however, was the one he has already developed with receiver David Sills, who hauled in six catches for 96 yards. The two have only played in a handful of Division I football games thus far in their careers, but the potential is there to be one of the Big 12’s most potent duos.
WVU Baseball – Despite dropping two Big 12 series in a row, WVU’s baseball program has earned a spot on the hot list for its overall body of work over the last six weeks. In that time frame, the Mountaineers started conference play by winning their first five series, including a series victory over No. 3 TCU. As a result, Mazey’s ball club became the first West Virginia baseball team to crack the top 25 since the early 80s and the first Mountaineer team to ever earn a spot in Baseball America’s top 25. West Virginia currently sits at No. 10 in the RPI.
Due to that success, many people are talking about the potential for the Mountaineers to not only earn an NCAA berth but host a regional. That would a monumental task when you look at where the program was just a few years ago. All in all, West Virginia is fighting through some injuries but if it can avoid a late-season collapse, it should be playing in the NCAA Tourney next month – something no West Virginia team has done since 1996.
Wide Receiver Depth – While it was only spring practice, it was somewhat concerning to see the lack of depth at the wide receiver position in West Virginia’s spring game. David Sills and Gary Jennings each looked good with the first-team offense, but the Mountaineers were missing three of their top five options.
Ka’Raun White, who figures to be WVU’s top receiver come fall, missed the entirety of spring practice and is still rehabbing from a broken leg he suffered at the end of last season. Marcus Simms, who showed flashes of potential in his true freshman season, suffered a concussion and missed the last few weeks of spring ball. Perhaps the most concerning absence, however, was that of Steven Smothers, one of West Virginia’s most ballyhooed recruits a year ago. Smothers has held high expectations from the fan base since his signing and could have benefitted greatly from a spring to further develop his game. Instead he missed the entirety of spring practice due to academic issues and will not rejoin the team until they are resolved.
While the absence moved some relatively inexperienced receivers onto the first team, it really hurt the second team, as Chris Chugunov was forced to throw the ball to several walk-on receivers in the Gold-Blue Spring Game.
Pitching Depth – West Virginia’s bullpen issues have been well documented over the last month or so. For a while it looked as if the only thing that was keeping the Mountaineers from being a potentially great team was a lack of reliable relievers. Now, the issue is West Virginia’s overall pitching depth because the Mountaineers have lost two starters in the last few weeks. The first injury came when Conner Dotson, West Virginia’s Sunday pitcher, broke his humerus bone while warming up before a game against Oklahoma State on April 2. The other came when Michael Grove, one of the better pitchers in the Big 12, strained a muscle in his forearm while pitching against Kansas State on April 22.
Grove is expected to be back towards the end of the regular season, but West Virginia has already started to feel the effects of his injury. It comes as no coincidence that WVU dropped its first two Big 12 series of the season after his injury. The only silver lining is that Alek Manoah has stepped up and looked better with each start over the last few weeks. Currently, the Mountaineers are projected to hold a spot in the NCAA Tournament, but they must find a way to at least play .500 baseball with only two proven starters (Manoah and B.J. Myers) and one consistent reliever (freshman Sam Kessler). Besides Grove, West Virginia is also expecting the return of Carter Camp and Shane Ennis to the lineup before the start of the Big 12 Tournament on May 24 in Oklahoma City.