West Virginia football: Most important player, breakout star, newcomers to watch

By The Sports Xchange  |  Aug. 19, 2017 at 1:48 PM
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West Virginia enjoyed a magical season in 2016, winning its first six games on the way to a 10-3 record, mixing a powerful, senior-laden team with a lot of luck and hard work.

It's going to take a lot more of those intangibles to get the Mountaineers near those levels of success this year, but thanks to the steady hand of coach Dana Holgorsen -- who can get a bit frantic at times -- and a solid overall team built with junior college and graduate transfers, it would be foolish to discard West Virginia as a second-division Big 12 Conference squad.

That's just what the league media did in the July, relegating the Mountaineers to sixth in the league in their preseason poll. The last thing the rest of the Big 12 needed was for West Virginia to have more motivation.

"We have guys that have talent, but everybody that we play has guys that have talent," Holgorsen said. "The talent aspect of it is on par for what we have had the last couple of years. I'm still working through the chemistry aspect of it. That is what wins games.

"There is a little luck that goes into it -- you have to have the ball bounce your way a little bit," he added. "You have to expect good things to happen. Make your own luck, that sort of thing. I like the team's chemistry right now, but how is the team going to go when there is adversity?"

All the offseason talk about the Mountaineers has been about their offense, which gets a bump from Florida transfer Will Grier, a former Parade All-American who led the Gators to a 6-0 start as a freshman before getting suspended for a year for using performance-enhancing drugs.

And West Virginia already had an established star in running back Justin Crawford, a big-play guy who averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season, so the Mountaineers are going to score some points.

But West Virginia also has to find a way to stop the opposition. Its starting defensive line consists of two sophomores and a senior, Xavier Pegues, who had just one tackle last season. Four of its six top defensive backs weren't starters in 2016, and Dravon Askew-Henry is returning from an ACL tear.

Opening the campaign against an up-and-coming Virginia Tech team at a neutral site (Landover, Md.) could set the tone for the rest of West Virginia's 2017 season. The Mountaineers could use that as a momentum-builder, but even if they don't they will have an easy road to wins in their next three games (East Carolina and Delaware State at home, before a road opener at Kansas).

West Virginia's final three games are against teams ranked ahead of it in preseason polls (Kansas State, Texas and Oklahoma) and that trio of contests should determine if the Mountaineers are a lower-tier bowl team or a player on the national stage.

The Mountaineers probably won't win 10 games this season, but eight or nine wins should be reachable.


RB Justin Crawford -- He was West Virginia's only player on the Big 12's preseason all-conference team, and his production will be a huge part of the Mountaineers' success this season. Crawford had an outstanding junior year, racking up 1,184 yards and four touchdowns while averaging a sparkling 7.3 yards per carry. In 2016, he was the Big 12's Newcomer of the Year and was the league's Player of the Week three times.


DE Adam Shuler -- He made an immediate impact, recording six tackles (five solo) and forcing a fumble in his first collegiate game against Missouri. As a redshirt freshman backup last season, Shuler racked up 33 tackles (18 solo), caused a fumble and a sack. He has prototypical size (6-foot-4, 270 pounds) for a defensive end playing the 5-technique. Shuler won't be asked to make a lot of splashy plays, but he'll do a lot of the dirty work and be strong against the run.


QB Will Grier -- He was already on the way to being great at Florida before he got suspended for testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs six games (all wins) into his freshman season. At the time of the suspension, Grier had thrown for 1,204 yards (65.8 completion percentage) and 10 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. "It didn't take long for us to figure out that Grier's a really good player," coach Dana Holgorsen said. "He's got that starting quarterback trait. He's a coach's kid. He's a winner. He controls the huddle. He does everything right."

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