New coach Neal Brown’s task is to keep West Virginia rolling
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — New coach Neal Brown has a tall task as he tries to prevent West Virginia’s perennially prolific offense from turning pathetic.
Brown was hired from Troy in January to take over for the departed Dana Holgorsen and inherited a roster lacking proven stars.
Gone is record-setting quarterback Will Grier and four of the top five wide receivers from last season. The defense was decimated by defections a few months into his tenure.
“From an install standpoint, we’re still throwing a lot at them,” Brown said.
There are plenty of questions, including how to come close to averaging last year’s 512 yards of offense, which ranked eighth in the nation and second in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma.
West Virginia opens the season Aug. 31 at home against FCS James Madison.
Throughout the summer, the easygoing Brown hosted players by position at his house for dinner. There have been team-bonding competitions in cornhole, basketball and ax throwing.
The hashtag motto for this year’s team is “Trust The Climb,” one that could take some time.
“We’re going to be a young football team, and I think our fan base understands that and there’s going to be some patience,” Brown said.
But he has been concerned at times about his players’ attitudes early in camp.
“If you do little things right and you prepare and you work hard, good things are going to happen,” he said. “But I think the opposite is also true. If you’re not mentally prepared, if you’re not taking care of your body, if you’re not focused on details … you will be exposed.”
Brown went 35-16 in four years at Troy. Like Holgorsen, Brown is a descendant of the pass-happy air-raid offense tree that stems from former Kentucky coach Hal Mumme and Washington State’s Mike Leach. Brown was quarterbacks coach at Texas Tech from 2010-12.
He then was offensive coordinator at Kentucky for two years before being hired at Troy as one of the youngest coaches in the FBS.
Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall learned Brown’s system in spring practice and was named the starting quarterback last week.
Kendall attempted 39 passes behind two Heisman Trophy winners over two seasons. He beat out 6-foot-6 Jack Allison, a junior who started last year’s bowl game after Grier sat out to focus on the NFL Draft, and redshirt freshman Trey Lowe. Jarret Doege transferred from Bowling Green this spring and is seeking to become eligible immediately.
The defense has holes to fill, as well.
Safeties Kenny Robinson and Derrek Pitts left the team in the spring. Robinson started 20 games in two seasons, had a team-high four interceptions and was second in tackles with 77 as a sophomore. The Mountaineers also lost four-year starter Dravon Askew-Henry, an Aliquippa grad who is in camp with the Steelers. Helping fill the gap will be JoVanni Stewart, a linebacker last year, and Josh Norwood, a 2018 starter at cornerback. Others who could get significant playing time at safety are Dante Bonamico, Jake Long and Sean Mahone.
Brown won’t have to worry so much about his depth at running back. Kennedy McKoy led the Mountaineers with 802 yards and eight TDs last season. Also returning are Martell Pettaway (623), Leddie Brown (446) and Alec Sinkfield, whose 2018 season was cut short by a leg injury.
Talent depletion aside, West Virginia has a difficult path to becoming bowl eligible. The Mountaineers play more Big 12 road games than league home games in odd-numbered years, and the home schedule isn’t easy, either, with the likes of Texas and Oklahoma State. The nonconference schedule is challenging with tests Sept. 7 at Missouri and Sept. 14 at home against N.C. State.