<
>

Top-10 player spring update: West Virginia

Over the past two weeks, we unveiled the 10 best players of every Big 12 roster at the moment.

We won't be including junior college or freshman signees who have yet to arrive on campus. And we are only looking at players currently with their teams this spring.

These lists are sure to change, but this is our best assessment for the moment.

We conclude the series with West Virginia:

1. DE Noble Nwachukwu: The senior’s three sacks against Texas provided an example of his potential to impact games. Nwachukwu finished with 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss to solidify a spot among the Big 12’s top returning defenders heading into the fall. He gives defensive coordinator Tony Gibson a solid piece to build his aggressive defensive approach around.

2. C Tyler Orlosky: The foundation of the Mountaineers’ offensive line was a key to Wendell Smallwood’s rushing title in 2015. He returns with 29 career starts under his belt and a supreme understanding of the nuances of Dana Holgorsen’s offense. He could be the most important player on the roster.

3. QB Skyler Howard: The senior repaid Holgorsen’s unrelenting belief in him with a exceptional performance in the Motel 6 Cactus Bowl, passing for 532 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions. He enters his second season as a starter with pressure to make the Mountaineers' passing game more efficient despite passing for 3,145 yards as a junior. Howard will be looking to improve upon his 14 interceptions and 54.8 completion percentage in 2015.

4. RB Rushel Shell: With Smallwood leaving early for the NFL, Shell gets the chance to increase his role after rushing for 708 yards and eight touchdowns during his junior season. A physical runner, Shell should help bring balance to West Virginia’s offense while opening deep-threat opportunities for Howard and the receivers.

5. LB Al-Rasheed Benton: After watching Nick Kwiatkoski and Jared Barber excel from the sidelines a year ago, Benton seems ready to slide right into a key role in the defense. He’s only started one game in his career (finishing with seven tackles, including two tackles for loss against Liberty) but he has the talent and aggressiveness to be a stalwart in the middle this fall.

6. WR Shelton Gibson: The Big 12’s yards-per-reception leader returns after terrorizing defenses with his deep speed and silky moves after the catch. His 23.97 yards per reception was second nationally, but it could be a good sign if that number drops during his junior season as that likely would mean Gibson is getting more involved in the offense as a whole instead of mainly as a deep threat.

7. DE Christian Brown: Brown joins Nwachukwu to give West Virginia one of the league’s top returning defensive end duos. Brown finished with 33 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and two sacks in 13 starts during the 2015 season.

8. S Dravon Askew-Henry: The junior has started every game of his Mountaineers career, but will need to step into a bigger leadership role as an upperclassman. West Virginia’s leading returning tackler (59 tackles, 47 solo), Askew-Henry could be ready to fill the playmaking void left by Karl Joseph and K.J. Dillon.

9. WR Ka’Raun White: The light seemed to come on for Kevin White’s younger brother during the final few weeks of last season. The junior college transfer took a while to get settled but is starting to show the supreme talent and good bloodlines that may make him a primary target in the Mountaineers’ passing attack after finishing with 15 receptions for 275 yards in his debut season.

10. LB Xavier Preston: One of the most physically talented players on the entire roster, Preston (18 tackles, 3 tackles for loss in 2015) needs to secure himself a spot in the defense heading into the fall. With linebacker looming as a potential weakness after graduating three seniors, Preston’s time is now.