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Will Grier looks for big homecoming when No. 17 WVU faces Tennessee

| Friday, Aug. 31, 2018, 7:12 p.m.
Quarterback Will Grier and West Virginia will play Tennessee on Saturday.
Quarterback Will Grier and West Virginia will play Tennessee on Saturday.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Will Grier has fond memories of playing quarterback in Charlotte, N.C., where he once threw for 834 yards and 10 touchdowns and helped his high school team score 104 points in a state semifinal game.

Grier won’t be expected to put up those kinds of numbers when he returns home Saturday, but he’ll be looking to get his Heisman Trophy bid off to a strong start when 17th-ranked West Virginia meets Tennessee in a neutral site game at Bank of America Stadium.

“I think there clearly is excitement about the first game. I love that it’s in Charlotte,” said Grier, who won three state high school championships at Davidson Day, located 20 minutes north of Charlotte. “That’s obviously home. A lot of family and friends are right there. But we’re excited because it’s the first game of the season.”

Grier is coming off an impressive season, throwing for 34 touchdowns — second most in school history and eighth most in the nation — and 3,490 yards. He graded out as the No. 1 QB in the country in 2017 by Pro Football Focus and earned Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.

He enters this season as an AP Preseason All-American selection and a strong Heisman candidate.

Grier faces a Tennessee defense that surrendered more than 29 points per game last season but has a new coach in Jeremy Pruitt, who won six national championships as a defensive coordinator.

“They keep you spread out,” Pruitt said of the Mountaineers, who have scored at least 30 points in 58 games under coach Dana Holgorsen. “They’re balanced on offense. In their throw game they’ve got a lot of screens, a lot of RPOs.”

Grier was heavily recruited by Tennessee under Derek Dooley.

“I went on a couple of visits,” Grier said. “It was a cool place. It’s a well-run program. They have great facilities.”

Instead, he chose SEC rival Florida, going 5-0 as a freshman starter in 2015 before being suspended a year for violating the NCAA’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs. He transferred to West Virginia, spent a year as the scout team quarterback and made an immediate impact in 2017.

While West Virginia has spent the last several weeks building a Heisman Trophy campaign around Grier, Tennessee has a much less stable quarterback situation.

Pruitt hasn’t announced whether he will start incumbent Jarrett Guarantano or Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst. Guarantano started six of Tennessee’s final seven games last year. Chryst had an 11-2 career record as Stanford’s starting quarterback but lost his job to K.J. Costello last year. It’s likely both could see action.

Tennessee is counting on a healthy season from offensive tackle Trey Smith, who missed spring practice due to blood clots in his lungs. Smith was a second-team all-SEC pick as a true freshman last year and was the only Tennessee player to earn all-SEC honors.

West Virginia has arguably the nation’s most potent pass-catch combination with Grier throwing to David Sills, whose 18 touchdown catches last season tied for the Football Bowl Subdivision lead. They’ll test a Tennessee secondary that figures to start a true freshman at cornerback. Tennessee’s depth chart indicates one of two freshmen — Alontae Taylor or Bryce Thompson — will fill one cornerback spot.

Tennessee is attempting to bounce back from a 4-8 season in which it set a school record for losses. But the Vols have a history of success in neutral-site games. They’re 5-0-1 in season-opening neutral site matchups, including an overtime victory over Georgia Tech in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium last year.

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