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High hopes for West Virginia in 2018 with Will Grier, David Sills returning

| Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, 7:34 p.m.
West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V is returning for his senior season.
West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V is returning for his senior season.

West Virginia has two good reasons to feel confident heading into next season.

Announcements by quarterback Will Grier and wide receiver David Sills earlier this month that they will return instead of enter the NFL Draft has amped up excitement in Morgantown, W.Va., about the Mountaineers' potential to compete for a Big 12 championship.

“Getting those juniors back is important,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said. “We've got some momentum going into 2018.”

That potential might be possible only if the defense has a turnaround. But the offense should be set.

Grier threw for 3,490 yards and 34 touchdowns before breaking a finger on his throwing hand Nov. 18 against Texas and missed the rest of the season. He'll be the top returning quarterback in the pass-happy league with the departures of Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State's Mason Rudolph.

“He came here to win the Big 12 and to be the best that he can be,” Holgorsen said. “I just don't think we're there yet. That was kind of my message to him, and he agreed. There's just unfinished business here.”

With Grier out for most of the final three games, West Virginia lost three straight and finished 7-6, including a 30-14 loss to Utah in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on Tuesday.

“I feel like we have a lot to prove next year,” Sills said. “The Big 12 was really good this year.”

West Virginia's offensive line will return mostly intact, and Sills will be back to anchor a solid receiving corps.

Sills led the nation during the regular season with 18 touchdown catches, and Gary Jennings finished with a team-high 97 catches for 1,096 yards. West Virginia also has speedster and return man Marcus Simms and will add transfer wide receiver T.J. Simmons from Alabama.

West Virginia must replace two-time 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford but have experience at running back in Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway.

Now, about that defense. The Mountaineers were eighth in the Big 12 in total defense and gave up points in bunches at times, including 59 to Oklahoma and 23 unanswered points in the fourth quarter of a close victory over one-win Baylor. Their 31.5 points allowed per game was their highest total since 2013.

The Mountaineers return most of the starters on a unit that was picked apart by injuries. The clear leader will be linebacker David Long, who had 16 tackles for loss, including a school-record seven against Oklahoma State.

With Grier, the offense scored at least 20 points in a quarter nine times, equaling the output from the previous four years combined. But it also had puzzling droughts at other times and issues with dropped passes and turnovers.

The schedule could be in West Virginia's favor in 2018. In even-numbered years, the Mountaineers play five league games at home, as opposed to four in odd-numbered years. The most intriguing game might be the opener Sept. 1 against Tennessee and new coach Jeremy Pruitt in Charlotte, N.C., just south of Grier's hometown of Davidson.

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