2020 Schedule Preview: West Virginia

John. E. Hoover

Every Wednesday going into Big 12 Media Days on July 20-21, SI Sooners will break down Oklahoma’s 2020 schedule. Today: West Virginia.

West Virginia went just 5-7 in Neal Brown’s first year in Morgantown, but the Mountaineers were close — achingly close — to doing so much more.

WVU stunned the Big 12’s surprise darlings in Kansas State, knocked TCU out of a bowl game, and took Oklahoma State and Big 12 runner-up Baylor down to the wire.

And they were even closer than that.

“Had opportunities to win every single game except Missouri (a 38-7 loss in Columbia), Oklahoma (a 52-14 loss in Norman) — and then we just played terrible the first half against Texas Tech — those are the three that, just, we played really bad football. You know, Iowa State, it’s a one-score game going in the fourth quarter and we had to play with our backup quarterback. You look at Texas, it’s either tied or a one-score game going into the fourth quarter. Oklahoma State, we lose by a touchdown and we had the ball inside of 15 with a chance to tie it in the last minute. Baylor, we missed field goal that would have tied in the last two or three minutes. So we’re right, right there.

Neal Brown Big 12
Neal BrownKevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

“But you win those games when you’re supposed to win ‘em, too, and we didn’t do enough things in a positive manner in any phase, to be able to win those close games and that's something that we got to put an emphasis on this spring, and summer and late in the fall.”

2020 Oklahoma Sooners schedule

Brown expressed those thoughts early in the Coronavirus shutdown, and while it reflects a significant amount of work to be done, he currently is dealing with more pressing issues: On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Vic Koenning was placed on administrative leave after a safety Kerry Martin Jr. took to Twitter to voice concerns about alleged mistreatment by Koenning.

“I took immediate action,” Brown said in a statement.

Brown already had hired three new assistant coaches this offseason in Gerad Parker (wide receivers), Jeff Koonz (inside linebackers and special teams) and Dontae Wright (outside linebackers).

How these changes — and potential changes — manifest for the team won’t be fully known until after the season has been played. But months ago, shortly after spring practice was disrupted, Brown said it was a priority.

“We’re really focused on furthering our relationships with our players and developing our players,” Brown said. “But also, we’re not only developing our players but we put more time and energy into developing our staff as well.”

From a personnel standpoint, WVU has something to work with on defense but needs to answer some questions on offense.

Jarret Doege
Jarret DoegeBen Queen-USA TODAY Sports

The quarterback position appears up for grabs between junior Jarret Doege and senior Austin Kendall. Kendall, formerly Kyler Murray’s backup at Oklahoma, threw 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions last season and was replaced in the final three games by Doege, who threw seven TDs and three INTs and helped guide the Mountaineers to wins in two of their last three games — both on the road.

Doege had better results than Kendall, and outsiders seem confident the job belongs to the former Bowling Green transfer.

Brown isn’t willing to go there.

“I’m so sick of talking about quarterbacks, to be honest with you,” Brown said. “They’re just gonna go, they’re gonna go play. And I’m not saying that to be short with you. It’s just, they’re gonna go play. I’ve got a plan, reps-wise, and how those reps go depending on who gets the most reps. And we got plan for how we’re going to do that. I’m not gonna spend a whole lot of time talking about them, leading into the spring. … I think both did some really good things last fall. I think both of ‘em got a ways to improve.

“I think we’ve got to do a better job catching the football. We had one of the highest drop percentages in the entire country. And, and we’ve got to do a better job running the football to help them. And so I think as we improve around them, they’ll get better. But I think both of them are good enough to win games in our league.”

Running backs Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield have big-play potential but only averaged 3.4 and 2.4 yards per carry last season as WVU finished last in the Big 12 in rushing offense and 129th in the nation.

Leddie Brown
Leddie BrownBen Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Brown said the offensive line was young and inexperienced last season, so a year in the WVU offseason weight training program and having a few more games under their belt should lead to more physical and consistent play up front.

“It’s just a byproduct of those guys maturing,” Brown said. “It’s hard to play in the Big 12 Conference, power five level, as a redshirt freshman. We had three of ‘em.”

And if wideouts Sam James (69 catches, 677 yards), T.J. Simmons (35-455) and others like Sean Ryan, Bryce Wheaton, Ali Jennings, Isaiah Esdale can be more consistent, the offense should see a rise in productivity.

Defensively, the Mountaineers clearly need to come together over Koenning’s situation.

But the personnel has talent to thrive in the Big 12.

Defensive linemen Dante and Darius Stills were first- and second-team All-Big 12 last season after compiling 14 quarterback sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. Senior Jeffery Pooler (5.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) brings experience and playmaking, too.

Dante Stillks
Dante StillsBen Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Josh Chandler, Dylan Tonkery and sophomore Jared Bartlett anchor a solid linebacker corps that could get a boost from Alabama transfer and former 5-star prospect VanDarius Cowan, who’s coming off a knee injury.

Probably WVU’s biggest concern on defense is having to replace both cornerbacks (Keith Washington an d Hakeem Bailey). Nicktroy Fortune is coming off a good freshman season and might be the Big 12’s best young corner. The other spot, however, is up for grabs.

Tykee Smith
Tykee SmithBen Queen-USA TODAY Sports

At least the Mountaineers have two returning starters at safety: Senior Sean Mahone led the team with 80 tackles in 2019, and sophomore Tykee Smith showed plenty of big-play potential as he earned freshman All-American accolades.

“From game three on, we played six freshman or redshirt freshman on offense and a couple more sophomores,” Brown said. “On defense, we played four freshmen — a lot. And we were mostly an underclassmen football team and I’m talking about the underclassmen freshman-sophomore group. And so, as they matured and understood what the preparation looks like, they understood the schemes we were running, what the level of play looked like on Saturday. And we played better. Still not good enough, but we played better.”

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