On Thursday night, the West Virginia Mountaineers will take on the Baylor Bears as they begin the second half of the 2022 season. I know that the next seven games are going to define the Neal Brown era and more so, will define the legacies of Dante Stills, JT Daniels, Sam James and many other players who were part of not only the team for 2022, but some who have been part of this team since 2018.
The past 40 games have been difficult for many and the next seven games do not really offer a glimpse at a brighter future. Entering the season, the Mountaineers faced the 25th hardest schedule, based on teams they would play and their 2021 records, but it should be noted that it was only the 4th hardest SOS in the Big 12 to start the season (Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas had tougher SOS entering the season).
For the Mountaineers, that tough schedule has become a 2-3 start that has fans griping loudly in the stands and on social media, media personalities being forced to addressed the fan unhappiness and coaches releasing hostage videos pleading the fans not to give up and the athletic director giving what amounts to a vote of confidence.
As fans split between the issues facing the program, there are two factions forming: those who think the head coach should go and those who think the problems faced by the head coach are so unique he needs more time. Both can be true and both are at play, yet the factors that are faced are not so unique that other coaches haven’t faced them and despite the time already given, more time may be needed to adequately assess what exactly this coach is capable of. So let’s talk all of this through and see where we go and what we do from here.
Brown’s tenure at West Virginia is one of contradictions. We’ve been told that the cupboard was left bare and if you want to use scholarship numbers, when Brown first took over in early January, the roster size was down to the mid-50s. Much of that decline can be associated with transfers with a new coach and moreso with graduations of a senior-heavy 2018 team. Once new roster additions arrived in the spring, the roster was in the high 70s, so “bare” is a relative term.
There have been few highs – beating NC State in 2019, beating Army in the Liberty Bowl in 2020, beating Virginia Tech in 2021 and 2022 to capture and then retain the Black Diamond Trophy. Recruiting has improved. Off-field items have improved. When it comes to the boxes that coaches must check, Brown checks many of them.
Still there have been lows too. Too many losses (21 in 40 games thus far), along with an inept offense for the past three years when he was the main playcaller. The team is still burning timeouts at inopportune times and despite the increased recruiting, we’ve seen an exodus of players. Recruiting means nothing if you can’t retain or develop.
Its been mentioned / called for / yelled from the rooftops that the wide receivers coach needs to be let go. Just so we’re clear, the previous coach – Gerad Parker – left to become the tight ends coach at Notre Dame. His replacement is new this year and is former Coastal Carolina coach Tony Washington.
The fact that the issues that have plagued the receivers since 2019 are still manifesting themselves in 2022 points to a larger problem, one that is two-fold. The first is the talent of the current group of receivers. If the same players are making the same mistakes year after year after year, it is quite possible that the players in question have those issues that can’t be resolved. Some players can’t be coached out of habits.
The other issue is that if the same players are making the same mistakes, why haven’t there been other players to take their place? There are some, Kaden Prather has stepped into a larger role that seems to expand weekly, but the rest are no where to be found – scratch that – the replacements are found in the transfer portal where West Virginia has experienced a large number of players leaving including Sean Ryan (Rutgers), Ali Jennings (Old Dominion), Winston Wright (Florida State). It is time for the players still on the roster: Preston Fox, Reese Smith and Jeremiah Aaron to see some action.
Jordan Lesley’s defenses have generally kept the Mountaineers in the hunt most of the time for the past two seasons (2020 & 2021). They’ve ranked top 50 in scoring defense in both years, top 50 in total defense (yards), top 50 in rush defense, and top 60 in pass defense. This year, however, the team has fallen to the depths of 2013 levels bad, ranking around 100th in defense and allowing teams to score 35 points per game. The question is what is causing the decline – is it the coach, the personnel or something more? Lesley’s teams have gotten worse each of his three seasons as a defensive coordinator, from the high of the 2020 season, which may or may not have been affected by the COVID pandemic, to this year.
Lost in the shuffle of this discussion is the player attrition, specifically attrition on the defensive side of the ball. This past season saw multiple starters leave the team, along with backups and depth players, all who are necessary to fill out a defensive roster. The coaching staff has tried to fill those gaps with experienced players from the transfer portal, but five games into the 2021 season and it just isn’t working.
Another item that perhaps isn’t talked about as much is the lack of turnovers generated by this defense. Lesley’s defenses have never been big on the takeaways but they’ve fallen dangerously into the bad category. West Virginia currently ranks 125th on takeaways, indicating they aren’t able to steal possessions from other teams. In four games against FBS opponents, they have generated 2 turnovers. That isn’t enough.
Graham Harrel & JT Daniels
In my opinion, the pair of Harrel and Daniels are intertwined and as such, we should talk about them together. Harrel’s hiring was praised as a fantastic hire for the Mountaineers, one that would bring about a swift and sudden increase in offensive production to a side of the ball that has struggled the first three years of the coaching staff’s presence.
The staff, team and offense all got a boost when JT Daniels announced he would transfer to the Mountaineers. Now the team was looking to take a major step forward with a top tier offensive coordinator and a prized quarterback capable of delivering all of the hype and throws and confidence and [insert adjective] needed to raise the level of play by the team.
They have delivered, to a degree. Currently, against FBS competition, the team is averaging 31 points per game, but that feels underwhelming. Some of that number is boosted by the output at the Kansas game, because the Mountaineers have hit that mark against Pittsburgh and failed to reach it against Virginia Tech and Texas. At 31 PPG, the offense only ranks 5th in the Big 12, with Oklahoma, Baylor and Texas Tech right behind them in terms of production.
With Daniels and Harrel, expectations grew that the offense would try to strike downfield more, but that manifestation has not happened. Most of Daniels’ throws have been within 20 yards of the line of scrimmage and rarely do we seem to take throws downfield to try and stretch a defense.