As preseason camp begins tonight in Morgantown, Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia Mountaineers will begin their preparation to avoid a second losing season and for the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide, arguably the biggest game in recent memory.
West Virginia returns a great deal of talent that came close to flipping what was some close loses down the stretch during Big 12 Conference play in October and November. The offense returns 14 players with starting experience from seasons prior including senior quarterback Clint Trickett, while the defense, led by defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, returns 13 players with similar experience.
That experience will be necessary with a tough September ahead for West Virginia with the aforementioned game against Alabama in Atlanta, followed by FCS National Championship runner-up Towson on September 6, a road trip to Maryland on September 13 and finally the first Big 12 game of the season against Sugar Bowl champion Oklahoma on September 20.
Here are just a few important storylines to watch through the month of August until the season opener against Alabama on August 30:
Instead of a quarterback rotation which didn’t allow West Virginia to gain any momentum last season, Clint Trickett was named the starting quarterback back in June, giving Mountaineer receivers, led by senior Kevin White, a lone signal caller to work with this offseason.
The 16 receiving touchdowns last season was the worst during the Holgorsen era at West Virginia following the 32 touchdowns in 2011 and 44 touchdowns in 2012, but that was with the trio of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey leading the offense in those two seasons.
With time to build timing with White and the other receivers, Trickett has the chance to have to more games like his 309 yards passing and two touchdowns against then-No.11 Oklahoma State to lead West Virginia.
With being the leader, Trickett seems more physically ready for the rigors of opposing defenses starting with the bruising unit of Alabama and those in the Big 12 after reportedly gaining almost 20 pounds of muscle following shoulder surgery in January.
Transfers to Make a Difference?
West Virginia obtained the services of former Garner-Webb and FCS All-American defensive end Shaquille Reddick earlier this spring, which will have just this season of eligibility with the Mountaineers.
The transfers continued as former Vanderbilt defensive lineman Darien Bryant decided Wednesday that he will join West Virginia with two years of eligibility remaining after graduating this past May. He was initialed as a three-star tight end before changing to his current position, so Coach Holgorsen will have some flexibility with this latest transfer.
Reddick and Bryant could find themselves seeing some trying to fill the hole left by now-Cincinnati Bengal Will Clarke if associate head coach/defensive line coach Tom Bradley sees one of the two players could help West Virginia this season.
You also add Pitt transfer Rushel Shell, who will now be able to play after sitting out last season, to an already loaded running back position that could very well be the deepest in the entire Big 12 Conference.
Running Back Depth
Speaking of Shell, the running back position for West Virginia this season could be the best since the likes of Steve Slaton, Noel Devine and Owen Schmitt ran around, over and through opposing defenses in the one of the most successful eras of Mountaineer football.
Dreamius Smith, Wendall Smallwood and Dustin Garrison, who will be joined by Shell and Andrew Buie, accounted for 734 rushing yards and six touchdowns on the ground as West Virginia leaned on the running game more when the passing game was inconsistent last season.
West Virginia will have a good problem on their hands with the five talented running backs, which could come in handy when you can cycle out a worn out Smith in this case for any of the others to keep the position fresh for an entire game.
Though, it’s still a wait-and-see process on what impact Smallwood will have for West Virginia in preseason camp after charges for his recent arrest were dropped by the state of Delaware. If Smallwood were to be suspended for some matter of time to begin the season, West Virginia should be just fine in his absence from the field.