West Virginia tries to fill many holes on defense in 2016
Big 12 teams have feasted often on West Virginia's defense since the Mountaineers entered the league in 2012, and this season could spell another long one for a unit that must find eight new starters.
In a pivotal year for embattled coach Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers return plenty of playmakers on offense, leaving it up to defensive coordinator Tony Gibson to keep that side of the ball from becoming the team's weak spot.
Junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry is the lone returnee among the top six tacklers. All three linebackers and three of the five starters in the secondary are gone. Senior Nana Kyeremeh is the most experienced returning cornerback with one career start.
The good news is the backups from a year ago were part of a 3-3-5 formation that came up with some stops after the Mountaineers got knocked around in their first three seasons in the Big 12. Despite allowing an average of 45 points over a four-game conference losing streak, West Virginia allowed the fewest touchdowns (33) and had the most interceptions (23) among Big 12 teams in 2015.
''Last year there was a lot of optimism because of what we had coming back defensively,'' Holgorsen said. ''This year there is not quite as much optimism but we have equally as much coming back offensively. That kind of made us mad offensively last year and it makes us mad defensively this year. I think there is a little bit of a chip on our shoulder and we are anxious to put in the work to get us to game day.''
West Virginia has shored up the secondary with four junior college transfers along with Iowa graduate transfer Maurice Fleming and Miami transfer Antonio Crawford, both at cornerback.
One defender looking for a breakout season is third-year starting lineman Noble Nwachukwu, who recorded team highs in sacks (8.5) and tackles for loss (13).
''When he gets one on one with anybody in the country I think he is good enough to beat them,'' Gibson said.
On offense, quarterback Skyler Howard will have a veteran line and wide receivers to try to feed off the momentum of last year's Cactus Bowl, when he threw for a bowl-record 532 yards and five touchdowns in a 43-42 win over Arizona State.
Other things to know as West Virginia battles for respectability in the Big 12:
RUN IF YOU CAN: Gone is Big 12 rushing leader Wendell Smallwood, leaving most of the running responsibilities to senior Rushel Shell, who will look to reach 1,000 yards for the first time since transferring from Pittsburgh after his freshman season. Holgorsen will also have to lean on freshman Kennedy McKoy and junior college transfer Justin Crawford.
NEW BLOOD: The Mountaineers made wholesale changes among their coaching staff. The newcomers are former Texas assistant Joe Wickline as offensive coordinator; wide receivers coach Tyron Carrier, an offensive graduate assistant at Baylor last year; ex-Miami Dolphins assistant Blue Adams at cornerbacks; and former Arizona assistant Matt Caponi with the safeties. Former standout wide receiver Stedman Bailey is joining the team as a student assistant coach.
KEY GAMES: Among West Virginia's seven home games are dates with perennial league contenders TCU on Oct. 22, Oklahoma on Nov. 19 and Baylor on Dec. 3. The season could hinge, though, on an Oct. 29 visit to Oklahoma State.
PREDICTION: The Mountaineers aren't expected to challenge for the Big 12 title but might have to make some noise in order to save the job of Holgorsen, who is 36-28 in five seasons. WVU could ride a solid start over the first five games and hope to become bowl eligible for a fifth time under Holgorsen. A 7-5 finish sounds about right.
SEASON OPENER: Missouri, Sept. 3, in Morgantown. The Tigers beat the Mountaineers 34-31 the last time the teams met in the 1998 Insight.com Bowl. The Mountaineers have lost five straight against Southeastern Conference opponents.