Note: Longhorns Country's "Around the Big 12" series will feature stories on all 10 programs in preparation for the 2021 season.
ARLINGTON -- Neal Brown has never been much for "rankings" in his days. Just look at what he did before arriving in Morgantown, W.V.
Prior to his arrival at Troy, the Trojans had finished above .500 since 2010. After starting things off with a 4-6 record, Brown led the Sun Belt club to three double-digit win seasons, including a conference title in 2017.
Year one with West Virginia was one to regroup. A five-win season was promising. In a COVID campaign, the Mountaineers picked up six wins and a victory over Army in the Liberty Bowl.
The Mountaineers, projected to finish sixth in the Big 12 this fall, could have taken the next leap if not for a year of much confusion. His only concern is to take the next steps under his motto he proclaimed in 2019.
"Well, can't control where you're at in preseason. I'm sure there's reasons why we're there," Brown said at Big 12 media days at AT&T Stadium. "It's like I tell our players, you either prove them right or you prove them wrong. And our goal this season is to prove them wrong, and to do that you have to play better and to play better you have to practice better. That's our goal and what we're focused on."
West Virginia offensively is ready to take the next step with a full offseason under its belt. Brown is looking for Jarret Doege to build off a strong spring, saying he was the team's most improved player during practice.
This isn't to say the Lubbock native was terrible for the Mountaineers in 2020. Doege completed 64 percent of his passes for 2,587 yards and 14 touchdowns against four interceptions.
The area of concern were connections downfield. Doege averaged a mere 6.4 yards per throw. He also averaged 258.7 yards per game. Both of those areas Brown said were points to fix last April.
"Two things with Jarret in the spring were pocket awareness and pocket movement," Brown said, "and the second thing was really his accuracy on the deep ball. That's something that, as an offense, we have to become more explosive.
"We had some drops that were a factor in that, but we have got to be more explosive."
Maybe that explosion in needed in the passing game. On the ground, it certainly wasn't missed with Leddie Brown.
Leddie Brown opened the season last fall with three 100-plus rushing performances in the first four games. He averaged 5.1 yards per play and scored 11 total times on both the ground and through the air.
Leddie Brown's goals are similar in 2021. He wants to pound the rock like Noel Devine or Steve Slaton from years past. More than that, the junior believes behind his offensive line and fully healthy, those 100-yard games will become a constant.
“I want to do the same thing I did last year, but be even more effective early in the season," Leddie Brown said. "I didn’t get 1,000 yards until the bowl game. I feel like I can do that in seven or eight games this year."
Leddie Brown wasn't mentioned on the Big 12 preseason offense despite passing the 1K marker. Iowa State's Breece Hall took one spot after leading the FBS in rushing. Texas' Bijan Robinson claimed the other.
Neal Brown laughed when asked about Leddie being left off the list. In a league known for 300-plus passing yards a game, the level of competition rushing the ball is just as strong.
"Leddie was a lead rusher and our third-leading receiver" Neal Brown said. "We're still trying to find ways to get him touches in the passing game. That's the way is being played. You look out how running backs are used in the NFL, they're three-down backs because they're used in the passing game as well."
Coach Brown spoke on how third-down efficiency would be a criterion in need of an upgrade. Last year, the Mountaineers only converted 46.1% of plays in that situation.
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Another area for growth is explosion. West Virginia's wide receivers averaged roughly 10 yards per play. Another offseason to work with Doege might be a key to deeper production.
"Winston Wright, Bryce Wheaton, Sam James ... those guys have played a lot of football." Brown said.
"We played a lot of freshmen and a lot of second-year players the last two years. Now we have veterans that have game experience.”
It's the defense that will give Mountaineers fans hope this fall. The team will replace Darius Stills at defensive tackle, Tony Fields at the hybrid linebacker and Tykee Smith at safety.
At least the secondary should come on strong. Last season, West Virginia finished top in coverage in the Big 12, holding opponents to an average of 159.6 passing yards per game.
"We have a lot of experience there. I think have some veterans," Brown said. "I think our communication should be at a high level. I'm looking forward because we're going to have a really good mix of guys who are fourth, fifth, and sixth-year players."
Upfront will be no slouch either led by Dante Stills, the younger brother of Dante. West Virginia was fourth nationally in total defense a year ago, allowing only 4.65 yards per play and an average of 291.4 per contest.
As the lone representative of West Virginia in the preseason team, Stills is trying to prove that while offense could be exciting, it's defense that decides the outcome.
"The offenses are so explosive, that takes away from some of (the attention) the defenses should get," Still said. "Our defense last year was top five in the country, but I don’t think we got the notoriety we deserved. I feel like we should have been in the conversation more.”
Dante smiled when asked about following in his brother's footsteps, who now hopes to make the final 53 with the Raiders. Maybe this year, people around campus will at least be able to tell him apart from his brother.
"Darius is gone, and people are saying ‘Are you Darius?’ and I’m saying ‘He’s in Vegas.’ Our whole lives it’s been like that," Stills said. "They think I’m Darius and he’s Dante, but it’s normal.”
Mountaineers when scaling towards the peak must be patient. A slip up on the side of the rock could be the difference between keeping the push forward or slowly falling back to earth.
Last year, West Virginia couldn't ascend to the next level, but they trudged along. A top-five defense gave them an identity. A veteran offense returning gives them the extra oomph.
Brown embodies what it means to be a Mountaineer. Patiently waiting for his chance, his third season might reach the end goal set back when hired from Troy.
And the players? They're all bought into what is best suited for a program, and are looking to show they're here to say.
“Us, as a team, we’re tired of being disrespected,” Leddie Brown said. "I feel like this year we want to show the Big 12 and all of college football we are one of the best teams.”
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