How will West Virginia build off an 8-5 season that ended with a thrilling Cactus Bowl shootout win over Arizona State? The Mountaineers get their spring drills underway on Sunday. Here are some key storylines to watch:
Offensive returner ready to take next step: RB Rushel Shell. Now that Wendell Smallwood is off to the NFL, it’s time to see Shell really break through. He came on strong late in the 2015 season and got back to running with aggression, with a pair of 100-yard games (granted, they were against the Big 12’s two worst defenses) and a nice showing in the bowl win. If he can keep playing with that fire and stay healthy, Shell ought to have a big final year in Morgantown.
Defensive returner ready to take the next step: CB Nana Kyeremeh brings 30 games of playing experience to the table and should help West Virginia address its vacancies at corner. He’s earned the respect of WVU coaches for his steady play and special teams contributions, but he’s only logged one start in his career. The door is open for the fifth-year senior to play a big role for this defense in 2016.
Redshirt freshman to watch: QB Chris Chugunov. Dana Holgorsen says his young backup can “throw the heck out of it” and is establishing himself as a smart, capable option. He doesn’t provide the run-game threat that the rest of his peers do, but Chugunov’s development is important this spring. If he proves he can handle the No. 2 job behind Skyler Howard, William Crest and David Sills would have more freedom to continue playing other roles in this offense.
Most significant position battle: Linebacker. It’s more of a huge vacancy than a battle, really, after Nick Kwiatkoski and four more seniors graduated. So the slate’s clean entering this spring. It’s up to last year’s backups -- Al-Rasheed Benton, Xavier Preston, Sean Walters and Justin Arndt -- to step up and prove they can handle the duties. Some more help will arrive in the summer, including ESPN 300 signee Brendan Ferns, but which of these returning guys will become playmakers?
Key midterm enrollee: RB Kennedy McKoy. His running back coach already is calling him a bigger version of Smallwood, which is pretty solid praise. The freshman from North Carolina looks like a natural fit and a quick learner. He’ll be another nice option to keep Shell fresh. Another new name to know, even though he showed up last year: Miami transfer CB Antonio Crawford. He’ll be in the mix to help in a big way after sitting out his transfer redshirt year.
Question that could be answered: What does the addition of Joe Wickline mean for West Virginia’s offense? After being dismissed from Texas, Wickline is teaming up with Holgorsen again and taking on a curious role -- his title is offensive coordinator, but he’s coaching tight ends/fullbacks and helping with run and pass protections -- to help bolster an offense that brings back a lot of talent. Wickline knows the conference well and has succeeded with Holgorsen before, so his influence on this unit will be interesting to follow in spring ball.
Question that won't be answered until fall: Will West Virginia take a step back on defense in 2016? When you lose as many veteran studs as the Mountaineers did this offseason, that sort of seems inevitable on paper. Holgorsen says this is the best defensive line he’s ever had at WVU, but it’s hard to know what to expect with all those question marks at linebacker and in the secondary. Let’s wait until we see defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s group come together in live action.