WVU’s Option Plays To Fill Football Roster Gaps
The Mountaineer football has seen eight scholarship underclassmen leave the program since the end of the 2018 season.
The reasons for these transfers vary, but ultimately the question of “why” isn’t as important to West Virginia as the “who” … as in “who” will replace those leaving.
Of the eight former Mountaineers who have put their names in the transfer portal, half of them have already found new homes. Offensive lineman Matt Jones (Youngstown State) wide receiver Dillon Spalding (James Madison), defensive lineman Tyrese Allen (Murray State) and cornerback Jordan Adams (Massachusetts) all have announced where they intend to transfer, while receiver Marcus Simms, and safeties Kenny Robinson, Derrek Pitts and E.J. Brown have not.
In addition, WVU has had a couple of walk-ons enter the transfer portal. Senior defensive back Barry Moreland is going to attend Minnesota-Duluth, and redshirt freshman wide receiver Kwincy Hall just recently entered the portal. He’s not yet listed a transfer destination, but he is no longer on West Virginia’s roster, so his days as a Mountaineer appear over.
Also there has been further attrition at receiver, as incoming freshman Terence Doston signed a pro baseball contract recently after being drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers, so the likelihood of his playing college football at WVU is slim.
So add all that up, and first-year head coach Neal Brown has a number of holes to fill, and he has to fill them in a relative hurry, as the Mountaineers’ Aug. 31 season opener against James Madison is just a little over 11 weeks away.
The biggest replacement needs for West Virginia come at wide receiver and safety. Brown has made some additions at each spot to try to patch those holes.
At receiver, the Mountaineers have precious little returning experience. Junior T.J. Simmons (26 catches for 366 yards), junior Tevin Bush (14 catches for 209 yards and redshirt freshman Sam James (two catches for two yards) are the only WVU receivers who had catches in 2018 and are back in 2019.
Junior Isaiah Esdale, sophomore Ricky Johns and redshirt freshmen Bryce Wheaton and Randy Fields also were on the squad last year, though none caught a pass. Still, the Mountaineers need most, if not all, to be factors in the offense this coming season.
If all seven of those returning receivers can develop into solid contributors – history tells us batting 100 percent in that regard is very rare – West Virginia’s rotation at that position still is a bit short of what Brown would like to have ready.
That’s why he’s added a couple of transfer receivers in Sean Ryan, a 6-foot-4, 195-pound sophomore who played at Temple last year, and George Campbell, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound fifth-year senior who previously was at Florida State. Campbell had been a five-star recruit while at East Lake High School in Clearwater, Fla., but was unable to live up to that billing with the Seminoles in large part because of a string of injuries. As a graduate transfer, he’ll be eligible to play this fall. Ryan, who had 12 catches as a true freshman for the Owls last season, will need an NCAA waiver to get on the field for WVU in 2019, but Mountaineer officials seem quietly confident he will be granted such immediate eligibility.
After the two transfers West Virginia also will have a pair of incoming freshmen scholarship receivers at its disposal, and each very well could see game action this year. Winston Wright (5-10, 170 lbs.) is a speedster who figures to line up at slot receiver, while Ali Jennings (6-1, 181 lbs.) has a little more size and probably will be used as an outside receiver.
On top of that, the Mountaineers also will have some new walk-ons available, including Graeson Malashevich (5-9, 180 lbs.), who already is enrolled at WVU. In addition, they could use a running back – Kennedy McKoy seems to have the best ball skills of the backs – for some snaps at slot receiver, if necessary.
Out of this group of receivers, Brown needs to find at least six and preferably seven who can play at a high level, and then pray they all stay healthy.
The free and cat safety positions in Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 defense also were thinned by recent attrition, particularly the losses of Robinson and Pitts, who each worked with the first team throughout spring practice.
With the pair now gone, West Virginia has to find more than just a couple warm bodies. It has to develop two quality starters capable of holding up against Big 12 competition.
The first options as the No. 1 free and cat are the guys who were the No. 2s throughout the spring – junior Sean Mahone at the free and junior Jake Long at the cat.
If they can handle the starting jobs, great. Then WVU will let junior Osman Kamara, freshman Kerry Martin, who enrolled in January, and incoming freshmen Osita Smith, Tykee Smith and Rashean Lynn fight it out for the backup jobs. Alonzo Addae, a transfer from New Hampshire, also could figure into that mix, but first he’ll need to earn a waiver from the NCAA to make him immediately eligible.
If West Virginia’s coaches don’t have the confidence in Mahone and/or Long, though, then they’re going to have to start juggling some players around from other positions.
JoVanni Stewart, who played sam linebacker last season, spent the spring learning the spear position in Koenning’s defense, which is a hybrid safety-linebacker. The 5-foot-8, 197-pound junior has been a deep safety in the past, though, and he could handle the position again, if needed.
Current cornerback Josh Norwood also would seem a likely candidate to move to safety, if necessary. He’s played safety in the past, and the 5-foot-10, 179-pound senior could do so again if the coaches want to move him there.
Stewart and Norwood would seem to have enough depth behind them at their current positions that the Mountaineers could survive either move. Dante Bonamico and Kwantel Raines would likely battle for the starting job at the spear if Stewart shifted to a new spot, while Keith Washington, Hakeem Bailey and Dreshun Miller would rise to the top of the depth chart at the two cornerback positions if Norwood was moved.
Raines could potentially be another candidate to move free or cat safety, so West Virginia does has some options when it comes to moving people around.
Ultimately the coaches will look for the best five defensive backs to work together, and Stewart and Norwood give them the flexibility to move some of those pieces around to get their best five on the field at once.
So, what they’ll ultimately have to decide is if they like the starting secondary of Mahone, Long, Stewart, Norwood and Washington; or one that features, say, Stewart, Norwood, Raines, Washington and Bailey; or some other such combination.