Neal Brown was allowed to keep his job at West Virginia after another lackluster season in 2022. Now it’s time for the fifth-year coach to show some improvement.
The task will be tough with a brutal September schedule. Several key players transferred after last season and the Mountaineers are picked to flounder at the bottom of the expanded Big 12.
“Looking forward to proving everybody wrong on that front,” Brown said. “We won’t finish there.”
Even a middle-of-the-pack showing might not be enough to save him. New athletic director Wren Baker has made it clear that the Mountaineers need to win more games.
West Virginia has yet to be ranked under Brown and has failed to become bowl eligible in two of his four seasons, including last year’s 5-7 record. His 22-25 overall record is the worst four-year stretch since the Mountaineers went 17-27 under Frank Cignetti from 1976-79.
For now, Brown is focused on preparations, not predictions. He’s emphasizing toughness, especially on defense.
“We’re going to use a lot more of those opportunities in fall camp and be intentional about being physical and tackling to the ground,” Brown said.
Brown calls running back CJ Donaldson a “budding superstar” and hopes the 240-pound sophomore returns to form behind a veteran offensive line after missing the final four games with an ankle injury and a midseason game with a concussion.
Donaldson had four 100-yard rushing efforts, a team-high eight touchdowns and averaged six yards per carry. He also blocked a punt against Pittsburgh that led to his own touchdown run.
There will be plenty of opportunities for others after 2022 leading rusher Tony Mathis transferred to Houston.
Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson, who combined for 82 yards per game, should get plenty of work again. New offensive coordinator Chad Scott calls speedy Jahiem White a “make-you-miss guy” and hopes to work him and 240-pound fellow freshman DJ Oliver into the mix.
DUAL THREAT QB
West Virginia will have a dual threat back behind center after struggling with three pocket quarterbacks the past four seasons.
Garrett Greene started the final two games and is competing with redshirt freshman Nicco Marchiol for the starting job to replace JT Daniels, who transferred to Rice. Greene threw for five TDs, ran for five more scores and average 6.1 yards per carry as a sophomore.
With the top four receivers gone, West Virginia is looking for help from transfers like Devin Carter from North Carolina State and Ja’Shaun Poke from Kent State. The 6-foot-3 Carter has at least 400 receiving yards in four straight seasons and Poke 300 yards in three consecutive years.
Top returning tacklers Lee Kpogba at linebacker and Aubrey Burks at safety anchor a defense that allowed the second-most yards per play and points in the Big 12. West Virginia also had a league-low four interceptions.
The line, decimated by transfers and graduation, will lean heavily on Sean Martin, who had eight starts last season, and returnees Edward Vesterinen and Mike Lockhart. The secondary should get a boost from transfer cornerbacks Montre Miller (Kent State) and Beanie Bishop (Minnesota), and safeties Keyshawn Cobb (Buffalo) and Anthony Wilson (Georgia Southern).
“The guys that we brought in, there’s some playmakers, too,” Kpogba said. “I shouldn’t be picking up too much slack out there.”
The offensive line has a home-grown flavor. Preseason all-Big 12 center Zach Frazier, right tackle Doug Nester and left tackle Wyatt Milum attended high school in West Virginia. While the state regularly produces such talent, those players often choose to play out of state. Nester spent his first two seasons at Virginia Tech before transferring.
Ja’Quay Hubbard, Brandon Yates and Tomas Rimac also have extensive starting experience at various line positions.
The Mountaineers open Sept. 2 at No. 7 Penn State, play a Sept. 16 home matchup with archrival Pittsburgh, start conference action Sept. 23 against improving Texas Tech and have the Sept. 30 league road opener at No. 17 TCU.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll