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Fierce 40: College Football 2015 Rankings - West Virginia Mountaineers (#36)


Welcome to the Fierce 40 series of my 2015 College Football Rankings, where I will be counting down the top 40 ranked teams in the NCAA. Today I will be analyzing the West Virginia Mountaineers, ranked #36 overall for the 2015 college football season.

I will be releasing one NCAA team preview per day, providing my analysis on each team in the top 40 rankings. There will be a focus on every key area of each college football team, thereby determining my overall ranking, with an emphasis on future NFL Draft prospects. Stay tuned.

Previous articles in the Fierce 40 rankings can be found here.

 

#36 West Virginia Mountaineers

2014 Recap:
Not much was expected from the Mountaineers in 2014, but after starting 2-2 they had ten and eight point competitive losses to Alabama and Oklahoma on their resume. West Virginia then ripped off four consecutive wins and beat Baylor and Oklahoma State in successive weeks. A 30-31 heartbreaker against TCU started a slide which resulted in an eventual bowl loss and a 7-6 record. The Mountaineers had overachieved, and a couple of prospects reaped the benefits moving onto the NFL like #7 overall pick WR Kevin White.

Coaching:
Dana Holgorsen has quietly steered the Mountaineers in the right direction after taking over for Bill Stewart. Holgorsen responded soundly after a 4-8 season in 2013 to once again establish West Virginia as competitive in 2014. Holgorsen cut his teeth in the Big 12 with Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, mainly serving as an offensive coordinator or positions coach. This is noteworthy as Holgorsen calls the plays for West Virginia and his famous “air raid” offense. Tony Gibson is back for his second season as the defensive coordinator for a unit that ranked 66th in total defense a season ago, about the middle of the pack at the NCAA level.

 

Offense Analysis

Quarterbacks/Running Backs:

While Clint Trickett proved to be one of the most improved quarterbacks in the nation last season, Skyler Howard had to come on late down the stretch due to injury. He performed well most importantly by not throwing an interception in any of his 110 pass attempts. Howard is a smaller quarterback, but as we see with many programs, Howard offers a more mobile option behind center. Howard should be fine even after losing Kevin White and Mario Alford at wideout, which equates to 174 catches 2,392 yards and 21 TD’s worth of production. West Virginia has some other targets with experience that will be able to step up and ensure the cupboards aren’t bare.

While the passing attack should still be effective, the running game is what should drive the offense this season. Rushel Shell and Wendell Smallwood are back, and both should improve upon the 788 and 722 yards they gained on the ground from last season. Shell is the better runner, while Underwood is more explosive in the open field after catching the ball out of the backfield. This is a nice 1-2 punch, and West Virginia could be a top 20 rushing team overall by seasons end.

Best Draft Prospect: Rushel Shell RB 7th Round 2017

 

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

The loss of Kevin White and Mario Alford has already been touched upon, but the Mountaineers have plenty of capable bodies, and Daikiel Shorts Jr. will be the target the Mountaineers look towards from a leadership standpoint. Shorts will be counted on to stretch the field, while senior Jordan Thompson should work exclusively in the slot. Thompson will be counted on to move the chains and will likely lead the team in receptions. Shelton Gibson looks like he will be the third starter, and like all West Virginia wide receivers, blocking in spread formations will be vital. Cody Clay may wind up being a valuable red zone target at tight end, and he could attract some NFL attention during his senior season. Clay is a proven asset as a blocker. Look out for Donte Thomas-Williams, a redshirt freshman running back who has nice size and could be split out on occasion in an attempt to get him the ball more often.

Best Draft Prospect: Daikiel Shorts Jr. WR 7th Round 2017.

 

Offensive Line:

Even though the running game is being counted on to fuel the offense, the offensive line is nowhere near a sure thing heading into the season. There are a number of starters to replace including guards Mark Glowinski and Quinton Spain who, next to the starters from Florida State, may have been the best starting guard tandem in the country. Tyler Orlosky at center may be the most proven commodity to date, but incoming left tackle Yodny Cajuste has apparently been putting on a blocking clinic during the spring and in practice. There is not a lot from a draft standpoint at this time, but West Virginia lineman have made a habit of blossoming right before our eyes late in their collegiate careers.

Best Draft Prospect: Tyler Orlosky C UFA 2017.

 

Defense Analysis

Defensive Line:

West Virginia is very excited about its defense heading into 2015, as nine starters will return total from the 2014 squad. West Virginia will still be utilizing the 3-3 front seven alignment in most sets with five defensive backs. Noble Nwachukwu is back at defensive end and is the leading returning tackler among front linemen. Nwachukwu accounted for 34 tackles with 8 coming for loss and a pair of sacks a season ago. Kyle Rose is an imposing defensive tackle that should get a sniff as an NFL free agent if he isn’t taken by the last round of the upcoming draft. At the other defensive end spot expect Christian Brown to be the starter. The junior saw action in 12 games a season ago, but this position has not been formally announced with Brown as the starter at this point. Nwachukwu looks to be the best prospect at this time from a draft standpoint, although defensive tackle Kyle Rose has the look of a player that is capable of doing more than what the current defensive alignment is asking of him.

Best Draft Prospect: Noble Nwachukwu DE 7th Round 2017.

 

Linebackers:

Nick Kwiatkoski was the leading tackler, and he is back for his senior season at West Virginia. Kwiatkoski registered 103 tackles and will move to the outside linebacker position away from the middle where he played a season ago. Kwiatkoski moves to make room for Jared Barber, the player who led the Mountaineers in tackles during the 2013 season. Barber is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. Filling out the trio of senior linebackers is Shaq Petteway, who has been a valuable contributor during his entire career which has spanned 38 games despite only one career start. Petteway has 81 tackles over his last two seasons, so West Virginia is not getting anyone green to start opposite of Kwiatkoski. West Virginia is shuffling the linebackers a bit in an effort to get more pass rushing support from the linebackers after the team only registered 20 total last season with Gardner-Webb transfer Shaq Riddick leading the team with seven.

Best Draft Prospect: Nick Kwiatkoski LB 5th Round 2016.

 

Secondary:

The bread and butter of the West Virginia defense is the secondary with all five starters returning. Karl Joseph is currently the first safety we have going off the board for the 2016 Draft after he opted to return for his senior season. Joseph is a fringe high prospect on the border between a 1st and 2nd round prospect. Joseph may not be the only player in this secondary taken during the first two days of the draft, as cornerback Daryl Worley continues to impress. The 6’2” junior has shown a willingness to be more engaged with helping in run support, and his overall tackling ability is above average for a cornerback. K.J. Dillon plays the “spur” position and is the wildcard of the bunch, but his 62 tackles and 7.5 for loss show he is a valuable asset. Dravon Henry and Terrell Chestnut round out the secondary, and they had 82 tackles and 3 interceptions between them a season ago. Not only does West Virginia return five starters in the secondary, but it does so with nobody under 5’11”. Height does not seem to be a concern. The goal for this group will be to cause more turnovers, as the Mountaineer -15 turnover ratio from last season ranked them 119th in the country.

Best Draft Prospect: Karl Joseph S 1st/2nd Round 2016.

 

Special Teams

You won’t see many kickers and punters getting draft grades in the Fierce 40 previews, but we have an exception with West Virginia kicker Josh Lambert. Lambert was 4-5 beyond 50 yards with his long being a 55-yarder against the team starting #39 in our poll, Texas Tech. Lambert was 12-19 in the 40-49 yard range, and that is where more consistency is needed if West Virginia does not score touchdowns at the clip they are expected to. Punter Nick O’ Toole is a senior who isn’t flashy but with 24 kicks downed inside the 20 and only a pair of touchbacks, shows a natural feel for keeping the ball out of the end zone. The biggest issue on special teams will be on coverage, especially punts, as West Virginia gave up three touchdowns on punt returns a season ago. Shelton Gibson looks like he will take over kick return and possibly even punt return duties unless the Mountaineers turn to young Donte-Thomas-Williams, which remains a possibility.

Best Draft Prospect: Josh Lambert K 7th Round 2017.

 

2015 Schedule

West Virginia doesn’t have to open against Alabama this season, and things seem easier with home games against Georgia Southern and Liberty. The Big 12 schedule is grueling, especially October 17th and 29, when the Mountaineers have back-to-back road games with Baylor and TCU. If West Virginia can score an upset in one of those game they could be a contender in the Big 12 by year's end.

 

Draft Prospects & Outlook

Karl Joseph will try to be the first safety off the board in April, and he has a nice supporting cast around him that should help matters. Daryl Worley is an intriguing prospect who may even try to declare this year with a big season. West Virginia is loaded with talent that could go in the later rounds over the next two to three seasons.

 

NCAA & College Football Chat

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