West Virginia Midseason Report Card

We’re 6 games in to the 2016 campaign and the Mountaineers find themselves at 6-0 and are sitting at #9 and #10 in the Coaches and AP Polls, respectively. If you read my Season Outlook, you know that I’m not surprised with our record so far. You’ll also notice that this week is where I expected us to suffer our first setback, but that’s beside the point. We’ve looked as good as advertised on offense, but the real story has been the defense, which has come out of nowhere to look like the best unit in the conference. A lifetime of being a Mountaineer fan has kept me from jumping on the hype-PRT and shouting “FULL STEAM AHEAD”, but it’s definitely hard not to be excited after the past few weeks. Pretty much everyone has performed well, so let’s take a shot at some midseason grades.

Quarterback

Preseason Grade: 3.5/5

Coming into the year, we didn’t really know what we could expect from Skyler Howard. We’d seen him play very well at times, but he was also extremely inconsistent and prone to some questionable decision making. There were concerns that he would be able to improve enough for our offense to be good enough to offset a defense replacing 9 starters.

However, I’m very pleased to say that through 6 games he’s looked fantastic. Not only has he grown into one of the leaders of the team, he’s also grown into one of our best offensive players and is certainly our most indispensable. Here are his numbers through 6 games: 135/203 (66.5%, 15th nationally), 1821 yards (303.5 ypg, also 15th), 9.0 yards per attempt (12th), 3:1 TD:INT ratio (tied 26th), and 5.0 explosive passes per game (tied 6th). He’s also been much better about deciding when to tuck and run when scrambling, with 16 of his 60 carries going for 1st downs, including 8 of 17 carries on 3rd down. As nice of a statistical picture as those numbers paint though, they fail to fully capture how much better he looks out there this year.

He has shown a near-complete mastery of the offense, and has looked much more comfortable in pretty much every conceivable situation. A lot of this has to do with the wonderful play of the offensive line, as well as the strong running game that predictably goes along with that, but he also seems to have a much better sense of both who he is and what’s required of him on a play-to-play basis. He’s still missed a pass here and there, but with the exception of two or three 2015-y decisions in the TCU game (which was actually his worst of the season IMO), he simply hasn’t made the “hold my beer” type throws that he did last year, and in general, he’s not only picked his targets well, but has delivered the ball accurately and on time. Simply put, he’s been our single most improved player, and if he can sustain this level of play for 2 more months there’s not a team on our schedule that we can’t beat.

Midseason Grade: 4.5/5

Running Backs

Preseason Grade: 4/5

I’m sure you’re familiar with expression “par for the course”? Well, Rushel Shell is playing at about 2-under right now. He ran well against Missouri and Youngstown St to start the year, averaging 5.4 ypc in those two games, but regressed to just 3.7 ypc as Crawford began to establish himself against BYU and Kansas State. However, it seemed like he really turned a corner following the injuries to Crawford and McKoy against Texas Tech, and has now run for over 100 yards in consecutive games, averaging 4.9 ypc in the process.

The real bright spots though have been Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy. Both of those guys bring a burst and versatility that Shell just can’t match, and having Crawford out there in particular just makes us feel that much more dangerous. The balance of the three of them together is what makes the group so special though, and if we can keep all three healthy then I feel good about where we are heading into the second half of the year.

Midseason Grade: 4/5

Wide Receivers

Preseason Grade: 4.5/5

That preseason 4.5 was heavily based on potential and received a fair bit of ridicule in the internet, but to this point I feel like the guys have done everything they’ve needed to to validate it. We’ve again had a few more drops than you’d like, and have had a bit of laziness here and there, but in general they’ve gone out and made plays, and you can’t ask much more of your receivers than that.

The beautiful thing about this group is how well balanced they are. The pieces just seem to fit. We have sure-handed possession guys like Shorts and Jennings who can move the sticks, we have big play threats in Gibson and Durante who can blow the lid off the defense, and we have a physical presence in KaRaun White who can beat people up and wear people down on the outside. Throw it all together and it’s a complete group that forces opposing defenses to cover the whole field, and it doesn’t appear that there are too many teams in the conference who are equipped to deal with us.

Midseason Grade: 4.5/5

Tight Ends and Fullbacks

Preseason Grade: N/A

Before the season we grouped the fullbacks in with the running backs and the tight ends with the receivers, but through 6 games it feels like it would be more appropriate to group them together in a new category. You won’t find out much about their impact from looking at a box score (Elijah Wellman is the only member of the group to touch the ball so far), but they have been instrumental in establishing the ground game that’s been so effective through the first half of the year. And I think this is what we can continue to expect from the group moving forward: they will mostly be used to open up holes for our talented skill players. I do, however, still think we’ll have them involved in some goalline/red zone trickery at some point. We’re just keeping it in our back pocket until the opportune moment.

Midseason Grade: 3.5/5

Offensive Line

Preseason Grade: 4.5/5

It’s always nice when a unit you were counting on to carry your team actually steps the F up and carries your team. Our line was talked about frequently in the preseason as one of the best groups in the conference, and maybe even the country, and through 6 games they have done absolutely nothing to make anybody regret those assertions. Even some shuffling along the interior hasn’t derailed momentum, and they’ve actually continued to improve as the season has worn on. To this point, we’re allowing 1.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss per game, which rank 27th and 19th nationally, but prior to the 5 sacks and 10 TFL we allowed against TCU we were Top 5 in both. Their continued excellence will only get more important as the season rolls on, but so far I think they’ve looked like a unit that’s good enough to pave the way to a conference title.

Midseason Grade: 5/5

Defensive Line

Preseason Grade: 4/5

Until recently, it’d been a ho-hum season for a group that was supposed to be the strength of our defense. Through 3 games we had only generated 2 sacks, 9 tackles for loss and 2 hurries, all of which were good for worst in the conference. 3 games later we’re still at or near the bottom of the conference in all three categories, but with 10 sacks, 21 TFL, and 3 hurries over that period you can see that they’ve definitely upped their production since the start of conference play. Again, I think a lot of this has to do with Gibby playing super conservatively for the first few weeks, but it’s been great to see them really get after 2 guys who were expected to give us a bunch of trouble over the past 2 weeks. If they can duplicate that effort going forward then I see no reason why we can’t continue to make it hard on these high-powered offenses we still have to face.

Midseason Grade: 4/5

Linebackers

Preseason Grade: 4/5

I was a bit higher on the linebackers than most coming into the season, but their play over the last month or so completely verified everything I thought about them. Al Benton has really come into his own in the middle and Justin Arndt has been solid on the strong side, but the real difference has been David Long on the weak side. He’s been a revelation since winning the starting job, and just seems to have that Karl Josephian knack for showing up around the football. The three of them may not be as big or experienced as Shaq, Kwiat, and Barber were a year ago, but there’s no denying that they’re much more athletic, and there’s an argument to be made that they’re also a much better fit for this conference. It’ll be interesting to see if they can maintain this level of play for 2 more months, but if they can, I like our defense’s chances to continue their excellent play.

Midseason Grade: 4/5

Secondary

Preseason Grade: 2.5/5

If we had done a quarter season review, this rating may very well have mirrored the 2.5 I gave the group in the preseason. After all, if we were having trouble slowing down Missouri and Youngstown St and BYU, what were Big XII teams going to do to us? It’s clear now, however, that Gibby was playing close to the vest and keeping things vanilla until conference play, because over the past 3 weeks these dudes have looked fantastic. Crawford, Douglas, Battle, and Fleming have all been strong contributors, and Kyzir White might already be the best player on our defense.

We’ve given up our share of yards to be sure, ranking just 76th in passing yards allowed per game with 233.7, but that number looks a whole lot more impressive considering we’ve already played the 1st, 13th, and 19th best passing attacks in the country in terms of yards per game (we held 2/3 to their lowest output of the season). The unit also looks much better when considering the rest of their statistical profile, as well. We’ve only allowed opposing QB’s a 52.6% completion percentage (18th nationally), 6.0 yards per attempt (15th), 7 touchdowns (16th), and a 107.3 passer rating (12th). Overall, they’re head and shoulders ahead of where even the most optimistic of fans would’ve predicted them to be 6 games in, and have grown from potential liability to strength since the start of conference play.

Midseason Grade: 4/5

Specialists

Preseason Grade: 4/5

It’s been a bit of a mixed bag from the Mountaineer special teams units so far. With Josh Lambert officially leaving the team, we know we’re stuck with Mike Molina as our kicker, and I hate to say it, but at this point I don’t feel great about him taking a game winner. He’s done a decent job on kickoffs but has missed 4 out of 14 field goal attempts, and it’s not like we’re asking him to nail 50 yarders in a hurricane.

As dodgy as the kicking has been though, the punting has actually been reasonably solid. Billy Kinney’s 44.0 yards per kick is good for 21st in the country, but even better, he’s been putting enough air under them to give our cover guys time to run downfield and corral returners.

On the other side of things, our return teams have been solid if unspectacular, but have yet to really hit a big play. However, with the meat of our schedule still to come, I’ll talk myself into the narrative that we’re just saving that for a later date.

Midseason Grade: 3.5/5

Coaches

Preseason Grade: 4/5

Dear Shane Lyons,

Can we please extend Holgs now, please? And Gibby too? And actually the rest of the guys, as well, if it’s not too much trouble?

Holgs, Wick, and Crook have the offense rolling, but the real master-class has been on the other side of the ball where Gibby and Co have taken a unit that was breaking in 9 new starters and several more key contributors and turned it into what looks like the best unit in the conference. The change has been nothing short of astounding, and is arguably the biggest reason why we’re sitting at 6-0.

You can point to things like penalties (we’ve had fewer than our opponents in 5 out of 6 games), turnover margin (+3 and climbing), and a lack of critical mistakes (2nd fewest 10+ and 20+ yards plays allowed in B12, fewest 30+ yard plays allowed, toxic differential of +29 through 6 games) as more tangible evidence of what a good job this staff is doing, but I feel like much of what you’d look at to judge a staff’s impact on a team is actually intangible. Does the team play hard? How do they respond to adveristy? Do they get down on each other? Do they quit? We check all of those boxes, as well, and that’s the main reason why I love this staff and the job they’re doing with this team right now.

Midseason Grade: 4.5/5

We are where we are this season because from the top down, this the most complete team we’ve had under Holgs. Whether we can get to where we want to go will depend on whether we can maintain that standard of excellence for 2 more months. We’ve been pretty good so far, but the next 2 months have a chance to be some of the most exciting in recent memory. Let’s enjoy the ride.

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