MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Neal Brown coaching era at West Virginia is about to begin.
Brown, who took over the Mountaineers after Dana Holgorsen left for Houston, is coming off three consecutive 10-win seasons with bowl victories at Troy. He is returning to the Big 12, where he was Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator from 2010-12.
Brown has only four starters returning on offense and five on defense for his debut season leading the Mountaineer program, which actually received 24 votes in the coaches’ Top 25 poll.
“We’re young and very inexperienced,” Brown said. “What we’re going to look like in the fall I’m not sure yet. We’re going to be a group that really grows and improves as we go through our Big 12 Conference and what is a very challenging schedule.”
Three Big 12 opponents are in the preseason coaches’ poll and four others received votes. A fifth, Missouri, would have received votes but the Tigers are on probation as a result of NCAA sanctions and not eligible to be ranked.
West Virginia is one of only four teams to play 11 Power 5 opponents this year, and one of only two to have just six home games (Boston College is the other), which is not ideal for a new coach introducing a new system for the first time.
“I knew what the schedule was when I took the job,” Brown said. “When you look at the schedule it is what it is. We don’t talk to our players about it – kind of a one-game mindset.”
Before West Virginia plays its first game under Brown on Aug. 31 at home against James Madison, the Mountaineers need to find a way to replace the lost production from the departure of quarterback Will Grier and wide receivers Gary Jennings, David Sills and Marcus Simms.
That has been job No. 1 for Brown since his arrival, and the quarterback job is still up for grabs among Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall, redshirt junior Jack Allison and redshirt freshman Trey Lowe.
Brown has been up front that he is fine with letting the quarterback competition stretch into fall camp.
“I really think with these quarterback competitions, it’s not really the coach that’s choosing them; it’s the guy that separates himself,” Brown said. “I really feel like we’re in a position where one of the three quarterbacks is going to separate himself from the competition after a scrimmage or two in fall camp.”
Kendall appeared to be the leader of that pack after spring practice, but until one of those three earns the starting job, that decision looms over everything else as it relates to the offense.
West Virginia’s backfield is stocked with capable and experienced running backs in seniors Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway along with sophomores Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield, but if the quarterback can’t make the passing game go then opposing defenses will key on the run.
The offensive line has two returning starters in guard Josh Sills and tackle Colton McKivitz, who moves from the right side of the line to the left.
T.J. Simmons, who caught 28 passes last season, is the Mountaineers’ most experienced wide receiver. There is some undeniable talent on the roster with players like Sam James and Bryce Wheaton, but those players are largely unproven. George Campbell, a transfer from Florida State, and Temple transfer Sean Ryan could be an impact newcomers.
Defense has been a trouble spot for West Virginia and there are many potential trouble spots on that side of the football. The line, though, has experience and talent in Reese Donahue, Dante Stills, Darius Stills and Taijh Alston, but there is a lack of depth. Reuben Jones, a transfer from Michigan, will help improve the depth on the line.
The linebackers will have to replace the heart of the 2018 West Virginia defense with the departure of David Long, last season’s Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan will help and new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has prasied Josh Chandler.
“He’s going to be a guy (opposing offenses) are going to need to find,” Koenning said. “By the middle of the year they’re going to have to try and find out where he’s at.”
Dylan Tonkery, who has battled injuries most of his career, is back at inside linebacker.
The secondary took a hit when All-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson decided to transfer, as did cornerback Derrek Pitts, who ended up at Marshall.
JoVanni Stewart moves from linebacker to safety. Senior cornerbacks Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey have both started plenty of games, as has senior Josh Norwood, who is making the move from cornerback to safety.
“It’s exciting,” Brown said. But “we’ve got our hands full. It’s one of those things where there’s so much energy and so much excitement, you want to make sure that they understand that we lost a lot from last year. We’re going to be a young football team, and I think our fan base understands that and there’s going to be some patience.”