West Virginia’s 8 2017 JUCO signees are just the latest in a long line who have found a home in Morgantown.
WVU encountered a couple of problems when we made the leap to the Big 12 in 2011, but the biggest was undoubtedly that we simply weren’t built like a Big 12 team. Guys like Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, and Stedman Bailey gave us enough top-end talent to compete from game to game, but they also masked the fact that our depth fell alarmingly short of the level required to compete for a full season in a major conference, and those deficiencies were made painfully obvious in our records over those first few transitional seasons.
Take 2012, for example. We started 5-0 and were flying high after walking into DKR and beating Texas on our first trip to Austin. I rolled with Geno and the Boys that year, and I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t at least subconsciously thinking National Championship as I walked out of the stadium that night. However, we laid an egg the next week, kicking off a vicious cycle of self-destruction that, when combined with the natural attrition of the Big 12 grind, knocked our season off the rails and led to us losing 6 of our last 8 games.
The following season is perhaps an even better example. We finished 4-8 that year, making it our worst season in over a decade and one of my hardest seasons personally as a fan. Excuses were made regarding our lack of experience on both sides of the ball, but that was exactly the point: we were caught out playing a bunch of kids in a grown man’s league, and it was clear that something needed to change. For the sake of their jobs, Holgs and Co needed to find a solution, and one that could be implemented quickly. They found it in the relatively untapped reserves of junior college football.
For the longest time, it seemed like JUCO football players were looked at in much the same way that upperclassmen are with regards to the NBA Draft: they can be undeniably talented, but there was almost this stigma surrounding them that they were damaged goods. After all, if they were actually that good, wouldn’t they have already been in the League? Or in this case, at a big-time program? What resulted was that a lot of very talented guys were being overlooked by those powerhouse schools, not necessarily because there was anything “wrong” with them, but almost as a matter of course. And to be fair, if you think of recruiting simply as a business decision or investment, there’s an argument to be made that in some cases it really doesn’t make sense for either party.
Blueblood schools in areas with a wealth of local high school talent like Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State, or USC have the pick of the litter when it comes to recruits, and their rosters are packed with enough talent and depth that even the best high school kids usually need a year or two to develop before they’re able to earn playing time. Those schools aren’t rebuilding, they’re reloading, so there’s less incentive to spend a scholarship on a JUCO player who only has two years to develop when you can invest that same scholarship in a high school kid that you can develop for four. And conversely, why would a JUCO guy with only two years to prove himself to NFL scouts choose to go to a school where he still might never be good enough to play?
But consider a program like West Virginia. There’s talent close, but not very much of it’s local. We can offer the opportunity for immediate playing time, and we’re always going to be looking to add quality depth. In a situation like that? Let’s just say we’re fortunate that Holgorsen was smart enough to recognize the opportunity, and following that dreadful 2013 season he began to mine it relentlessly.
The fruits of those labors have been plain to see over these past few years. The school-record 9 JUCO commits from that 2013 class included Kevin White, Mario Alford, Dreamius Smith, and Nick O’Toole. White and Alford ended up being our two best receivers, and White went on to become an All-American and Top 10 draft pick. 2014 brought us Skyler Howard, who, love him or hate him, spent the last two seasons defining our ceiling as an offense based on the version of himself that took the field each Saturday. 2015 brought Kevin’s “little” brother KaRaun and Rasul Douglas, another 2nd team All-American. 2016 included a third White brother (Kyzir) and the electrifying Justin Crawford, as well as Trevon Wesco, Elijah Battle, Mike Daniels, and Toyous Avery, all of whom will be relied upon heavily this season. These guys aren’t roster fodder, they’ve been or are still some of our best and most important players at their respective positions. We have JUCO fingerprints all over our program, and it’s led to a pretty substantial uptick in success in a relatively short period of time for a couple of reasons.
The first reason is simply the age difference. JUCO players usually arrive on campus at 20 or 21 instead of 17 or 18, and 2 years in the 18-22 age range can be extremely significant with regards to physical development, especially considering the types of guys we’re usually able to recruit (read: not Bo Scarbrough). The physical maturity of JUCO guys means they’re more likely to be ready to play without needing a year or two in a college S&C program, which means the main focus from the second they step onto campus can be getting them caught up with regards to the scheme and playbook, which also means they’re generally able to adjust to the D1 game more quickly than their high school counterparts.
The second reason is directly related: the infusion of so many guys who are ready to play right away means that some of those high school guys who maybe need a year or two to get their bodies ready actually have that year or two to get their bodies ready. This also ensures that we don’t have to lean too heavily on a bunch of 18-year olds and helps us avoid repeating things like 2012’s defensive disaster when 9 true freshman saw significant playing time. By the way, that group included future stalwarts like Karl Joseph, KJ Dillon, Noble Nwachukwu, Christian Brown, and Jarrod Harper, which just helps hammer home the idea of what a big difference a couple of years can make.
Holgs understands this, and he knows the model is working. As mentioned in the lead-in, 8 of our 21 commitments this year came from the junior college ranks, and most, if not all of them will again be expected to contribute right away. Quondarius Qualls, Jalen Harvey, Kelby Wickline, and Hakeem Bailey all look like pretty decent bets to walk into starting roles (or atleast significant playing time), while David Sills, Dominique Maiden, Isaiah Hardy, and Ezekiel Rose will all provide depth in crucial positions.
Counting those 8 guys, we’re now rolling with 16 JUCO transfers, and that number jumps to 20 if you include transfers from other D1 institutions. That’s nearly 20% of the roster, and with at least 15 of them in line to compete for starting spots it’s clear that Dana trusts them. Expect the trend to continue for as long as they continue to repay him in kind.