Big 12: Christian Brown

The last two weeks, we’ve been examining the strongest and weakest positions for each team in the Big 12 heading into the fall.

On Friday, we continue the series with West Virginia.

[+] EnlargeDreamius Smith
Dan Friend/USA TODAY SportsDreamius Smith is just one of many accomplished WVU RBs fighting for carries.
Strongest position: Running back

The Mountaineers running back corps is quite possibly the best position group in the entire conference. WVU features five different running backs who could win the starting job and/or handle the load as the main ball carrier this fall, including two running backs who have led the Mountaineers in rushing during their careers yet aren't considered favorites to start.

Sophomore Wendell Smallwood was the star of the spring, and his versatility ensures he will be a key part of the Mountaineers offense in 2014. He has the ability to play a similar role to Charles Sims with his running and receiving skills.

Senior Dreamius Smith returns after rushing for 494 yards and five touchdowns as a junior. Rushel Shell, a transfer from Pittsburgh, has terrific upside and size (6-foot-1, 210 pounds). Andrew Buie had 851 rushing yards in 2012, a team high, and returns after missing the 2013 season. Dustin Garrison, who led the squad with 742 rushing yards in 2011, also returns after a injury-riddled 2013 season.

And freshman Donte Thomas-Williams, the No. 138 player in the 2014 ESPN 300, joins the mix in the summer.

The competition for carries should be intense but WVU’s offense will be the beneficiary, as there will be minimal dropoff when the Mountaineers look to the the sideline for fresh legs in the backfield.

Weakest position: Defensive line

The Mountaineers need several players to step up along the defensive front.

Kyle Rose is the most productive returnee and is slated to move inside to defensive tackle after starting six games at defensive end as a sophomore. He had 49 tackles, including 8.5 tackles for loss, last season.

Dontrill Hyman and Christian Brown finished the spring alongside Rose atop the depth chart but have combined to start only two games during their WVU careers. The Mountaineers should get a boost from former Gardner-Webb standout defensive end Shaquille Riddick, who decided to finish his career in Morgantown, W. Va., earlier this week.

The Mountaineers have some potential contributors along the defensive line but very little experience or proven playmakers. If WVU hopes to return to a bowl game, its defensive line unit will have to go from unproven to disruptive this fall.
Over the next two weeks, we’ll be analyzing the depth charts of every Big 12 team coming out of the spring. West Virginia released its depth chart after the spring but not every question was answered during the 15 practices as the Mountaineers have several position battles, including quarterback, that will last into August.

OFFENSE (starters in bold)

QB: Clint Trickett (Sr.), Logan Moore (Sr.) or Paul Millard (Sr.) or Skyler Howard (Jr.)

Trickett missed the spring with an injury yet emerged atop the depth chart. It’s fair to say the Mountaineers still have issues at quarterback. Coach Dana Holgorsen is confident his team will see someone step up. Regardless, the competition should last into August and incoming freshman William Crest will enter the mix this summer.

[+] EnlargeDreamius Smith
Dan Friend/USA TODAY SportsDreamius Smith leads a deep group of running backs.
RB: Dreamius Smith (Sr.), Wendell Smallwood (So.), Rushel Shell (So.), Dustin Garrison (Jr.), Andrew Buie (Jr.)
FB/TE: Cody Clay (Jr.), Elijah Wellman (RFr.)

Arguably the deepest position group in the entire Big 12. The Mountaineers go five deep with running backs who could be featured backs on several teams in the league and they will add four-star signee Donte Thomas-Williams into the competition this summer. Expect WVU to use its running backs together at times this fall. At fullback, Clay is underrated and could be a valuable weapon.

WR (X): Mario Alford (Sr.), Devonte Mathis (So.), Shelton Gibson (RFr.)
IR (H): Daikiel Shorts (So.), Jacky Marcellus (RFr.)
R (Y): Jordan Thompson (Jr.), Vernon Davis (So.)
WR (Z): Kevin White (Sr.), Kj Myers (Jr.), Ricky Rogers (Fr.)

WVU has athletes and playmakers at receiver, they just need a consistent quarterback to get those guys involved. There’s no Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey -- proven all-conference performers -- but Shorts has terrific upside and Alford came on at the end of the 2013 campaign. This is a solid group that will make plays if the quarterback situation sorts itself out.

LT: Adam Pankey (So.), Sylvester Townes (Jr.)
LG: Quinton Spain (Sr.), Russell Haughton-James (Jr.)
C: Tyler Orlosky (So.), Tony Matteo (So.)
RG: Mark Glowinski (Sr.), Stone Underwood (Jr.)
RT: Marquis Lucas (Jr.), Michael Calicchio (Sr.)

Spain is a great place to start at guard but the Mountaineers need this unit to improve if they hope to return to a bowl game this fall. Inexperience is a major concern with Pankey, Lucas and Orlosky moving into the starting lineup with seven combined career starts.

DEFENSE

DE: Dontrill Hyman (Sr.), Noble Nwachukwu (So.)
NT: Kyle Rose (Jr.), Darrien Howard (So.)
DE: Christian Brown (So.), Eric Kinsey (Jr.)

Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell are going to be extremely tough to replace. Rose moves inside to fill the void left by Rowell and should be solid in the middle but the new starters alongside him will have play well if the Mountaineers hope to improve on their 33.3 points allowed and 455 yards allowed per game in 2013. Brown returns from a foot injury a year ago and has the potential to be a force as early as this season. This unit has a ways to go if it hopes to find a place among the Big 12’s top defensive line units.

SAM: Isaiah Bruce (Jr.), Edward Muldrow (Jr.)
MIKE: Nick Kwiatkoski (Jr.), Al-Rasheed Benton (RFr.)
WILL: Brandon Golson (Sr.), Sean Walters (So.)

Bruce has made the move from the SPUR position to the SAM linebacker spot but should continue to be a key playmaker in WVU’s defense. Add Kwiakoski and Golson and the Mountaineers have one of the better linebacker groups in the Big 12.

RCB: Daryl Worley (So.), Keishawn Richardson (Jr.), Nana Kyeremeh (So.)
LCB: Ishmael Banks (Sr.), Terrell Chestnut (Jr.), Brandon Napoleon (So.)
FS: Jeremy Tyler (So.), Ricky Rumph (Jr.)
BS: Karl Joseph (Jr.), Jarrod Harper (So.)
SPUR: K.J. Dillon (Jr.), Malik Greaves (RFr.)

Don’t be surprised if Worley inserts his name among the Big 12’s top cornerbacks this fall, he’s that good. Tyler slides into the spot vacated by Darwin Cook and looks like a future playmaker in the secondary while Joseph and Banks have combined to start 39 games during their careers. It’s a good combination of youth and experience. WVU doesn’t have one of the Big 12’s top secondary units but it has the talent to rise to that level in 2014.
With spring ball done, we’re re-examining and re-ranking the positional situations of every Big 12 team, continuing Monday with defensive line. These outlooks will look different in August. But here’s how we see them post-spring:

[+] EnlargeDevonte Fields
Jerome Miron/USA TODAY SportsWith a healthy and productive Devonte Fields this fall, TCU's defensive line could be an elite unit.
1. TCU (pre-spring ranking: 2): Devonte Fields appears to be back, which is a scary proposition for the rest of the Big 12. The 2012 Big 12 AP Defensive Player of the Year basically had a fruitless sophomore campaign, which ended with season-ending foot surgery. But this spring, defensive coordinator Dick Bumpas noted that Fields was making the plays he did as a freshman All-American. Even without Fields, this would be a good D-line, headlined by veteran tackles Chucky Hunter and Davion Pierson. But with Fields playing up to his potential, this line could be elite.

2. Oklahoma (1): Not only did the Sooners return the entire line that destroyed Alabama in the Allstate Sugar Bowl, they’ve added three redshirt freshmen who are clamoring for playing time. Charles Walker is the most athletic tackle on the roster, and he ran the fastest tackle 40 time (4.67 seconds) of the Bob Stoops era. Tackle Matt Romar quietly emerged this spring and could be on the verge of taking away snaps from some of the veterans inside. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo showed this spring he's yet another Sooner capable of getting to the quarterback off the edge. There's a debate on the best D-line in the league. There’s no debate on the deepest, with Oklahoma capable of going three-deep across the board.

3. Baylor (6): Coach Art Briles believes he has one of the best defensive lines in the country, and there's reason to believe he might be right. The Bears made the biggest jump on this list, thanks to the development of end Shawn Oakman and emergence of tackle Javonte Magee. Briles called the 6-foot-9 Oakman “unblockable” during the spring. Oakman already flashed plenty of potential last season as a sophomore, finishing sixth in the league with 12.5 tackles for loss. Magee, who might be the most highly-touted high school defender Briles has ever signed, sat out his freshman season while dealing with a personal issue. But he established himself this spring and could beat out returning starter Beau Blackshear. With former four-star signee Andrew Billings (who played as a true freshman) also poised for a big year at the other tackle spot, Briles could indeed be proven correct in the fall.

4. Texas (3): The Longhorns boast two of the league’s blue-chip defensive linemen in end Cedric Reed and tackle Malcom Brown. But whether this unit rises to the top of the league will hinge on the supporting cast. If athletic end Shiro Davis and run-stuffing tackle Desmond Jackson play up to their potential, and the Longhorns can get a boost from incoming freshmen Derick Roberson and Poona Ford, this could be a foundational positional unit in Charlie Strong’s first season.

5. Kansas State (4): Like Texas, the Wildcats have two blue-chip pieces returning up front in All-Big 12 end Ryan Mueller and tackle Travis Britz. They’re banking they’ll soon be adding a third in Terrell Clinkscales, who will be arriving to Manhattan shortly. Clinkscales, whom the Wildcats snatched away from Nebraska, was the nation’s No. 4-rated juco DT, and at 315 pounds, could be the run-stuffer K-State currently lacks.

6. Oklahoma State (5): With so much turnover elsewhere, the Cowboys will be counting on their line to be their anchor defensively. There’s reason to believe it could be that and more. Sam Wren received votes for Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year last season, while Emmanuel Ogbah garnered consideration for Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Throw in promising redshirt freshmen Vili Leveni, Ben Hughes and Vincent Taylor, who all showed signs this spring they might be ready to contribute, along with veterans James Castleman, Ofa Hautau and Jimmy Bean, and Oklahoma State could have the anchor up front it needs while the rest of the defense retools.

7. West Virginia (7): This will probably be the weakest area of West Virginia defense, but with their talent at linebacker, the Mountaineers don’t have to be great up front. Dontrill Hyman, Christian Brown and Kyle Rose are currently the starters coming out of the spring. But the player to watch up front is sophomore Darrien Howard, who rapidly progressed since having his redshirt pulled late in 2013. If Howard develops into an impact player, he could give the Mountaineers a huge jolt up front.

8. Texas Tech (9): The Red Raiders tried to get by this spring while awaiting the horde of defensive line help set to arrive this summer. All told, the Red Raiders signed four juco D-linemen, only one of which – Keland McElrath -- enrolled early (McElrath was hobbled by a stress fracture all spring to boot). To be better up front, Tech, which ranked ninth in run defense last fall, will need at least a couple of its juco transfers to hit.

9. Kansas (10): Keon Stowers quietly has become as one of the better tackles in the league. He was the defensive MVP of Kansas' spring game after collecting eight tackles from his defensive tackle spot, and he was voted captain for a second straight year. Stowers and linebacker Ben Heeney will lead a defense that returns nine starters and could surprise after gaining confidence from playing Oklahoma and Texas tough last season.

10: Iowa State (8): The Cyclones took it on the chin this spring, with projected D-line starters Rodney Coe and David Irving both getting kicked off the team. Iowa State got a boost shortly after spring ball ended when 2013 starting tackle Brandon Jensen changed his mind about leaving the team. The Cyclones should be solid at end with Cory Morrissey and Mitchell Meyers, but even with Jensen’s return, interior line depth is a major concern.

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