With the ink barely dry on the press releases announcing the likes of Will Grier and Gary Jennings skipping their final game as Mountaineers, it might seem a bit brash to already start the conversation around next season.
Trust me, it isn't.
On December 28th, West Virginia will line up across 9-3 Syracuse in the Camping World Bowl in Orlando. The bowl itself might seem like small potatoes to Mountaineer nation, but it is significant as it stands as an early preview for what West Virginia's offense will look like in 2019. More specifically, it will give us a taste of what Tyron Carrier's receiving corps will look like in a world without Will Grier.
In the most recent depth chart released leading up to bowl week, West Virginia lists its two deep at receiver as follows:
- (X) Marcus Simms, Dominique Maiden
- (Y) T.J. Simmons, William Crest
- (Z) David Sills, Sam James
- (H) Trevon Wesco, Jovani Haskins
The starters should need no introduction as Simms, Simmons, Sills and Wesco have combined for 2,224 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2018. For a first-time starter under center like Jack Allison, having that level of experience and production at your disposal should be a gigantic shot in the arm. Regardless of the outcome next Friday, Sills, Jennings and Wesco will leave Morgantown in their rearview. Simms and Simmons, who have up to this point had to share the spotlight with a couple future WVU hall-of-famers, will inherit starring roles at "Throw It Up" U.
How does all this bode for the 2019 West Virginia aerial attack? Not as bad as you might think.
First, the obvious: Will Grier, David Sills and Gary Jennings leave colossal vacancies that need to be filled. Ugly truths are still truths, after all. It cannot be understated how important it will be for Simms and Simmons, the two most productive receivers from this season returning next season, to play at a Biletnikoff-worthy clip in 2019 if West Virginia wants to contend in the Big 12. Granted, that falls just as much on Jack Allison's shoulders, considering he'll be the one putting the ball in the air and, now that Dana Holgorsen has resumed play-calling duties, that figures to happen quite a bit.
Simms and Simmons are more than capable, though, as they've proven during their time in Morgantown. Simms, the junior, possesses lethal speed and is an every down-home run threat. Simmons, the Crimson Tide transfer, is pure energy and plays with a visible edge. Jovani Haskins came on slowly towards the end of the year and looks like a great "tweener" as an athletic tight end that can stretch the field. Beyond those three, there exists a high ceiling under which dwells multiple possibilities.
Tevin Bush, the jitterbug out of New Orleans, has great open field moves and can be hard for defenses to hone in on given his size and quickness. Based on several big plays in 2018, he figures to be a mainstay in the slot where he'll benefit greatly from pre-snap motions and screens.
True freshman Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James will also see time on the field against Syracuse and both warrant excitement. Ford-Wheaton is a multiple West Virginia legacy and stands just a shade under 6'4" to go along with good open field speed. A red zone threat in the making, if there ever was one. James, meanwhile, is blindingly fast. A former 400 meter state champion in Georgia, James reportedly ran a sub-4.3 40 yard dash during his camp circuit and is the same player that, after dominating the field while camping at WVU, had coach Tyron Carrier convinced he could turn James into a future first-rounder.
Elsewhere, there is plenty of unproven talent. Ricky Johns, Isaiah Esdale, Randy Fields and Dillon Spalding are waiting in the wings and all bring a blend of size and speed.
And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a quarterback's best friend- the tight end - where West Virginia has a wealth of young talent in the aforementioned Haskins, Mike O'Laughlin, T.J. Banks Matt Bezjak and former minor-leaguer Jesse Beal.
Of course, this is before we even mention the most recent draw from the 2019 class which was highlighted by Winston Wright, Jr, Ali Jennings and Terence Doston. All three impressive athletes, the former of which figures to push for immediate playing time once on campus.
There's your headcount. So what does it all add up to given all the unknowns present in the equation?
The receiving corps from the last two seasons, the nucleus of which consisted of Sills and Jennings, was astonishing. The laws of the college football universe rarely permit such a confluence of focus and skill to line up together in consecutive years, but in the case of the Grier/Sills/Jennings trinity, an exception was made. As a coach, as a program collectively, you do everything within your power to prepare the next man up and hope, pray, that the same offensive spark reveals itself and a fire catches. That said, West Virginia's cupboard is far from bare.
Unless absolute calamity occurs between now and kickoff next year, Simmons and Simms are guaranteed starters at the X and Y positions with Ford-Wheaton and Bush backing up those positions, respectively. Sam James stands as the current favorite to emerge as the starter at Z in place of David Sills but given that there's a number of other talented youngsters, namely Ford-Wheaton, Spalding and Esdale all presenting real promise, competition can and should ensue.
Tevin Bush is a bit trickier given that his build and skillset sets him apart from the rest of his position group and, because he's basically the millennial Jock Sanders, will likely float from one receiver spot to the other and even line up in the back field when Dana is feeling extra loose.
What will be vastly different from years past will be the depth available at the tight end or H position. Between Haskins, Banks, O'Laughlin, Beal, Bezjak and more traditional blocking backs like Eli Drummond and Logan Thimmons, West Virginia will have a slew of big, athletic bodies that can line up tight to the tackle or even in the slot. The renewed relevance of the tight end position at West Virginia was one of the reasons that Will Grier's efficiency increased from 2017 to 2018 and why Trevon Wesco might see himself get drafted in April, which you can read up on here. With so much production going out the door with Sills and Jennings, look for Haskins and Banks and/or O'Laughlin to be ever-present in the Mountaineers' passing game in 2019.
All of this is to say that, assuming nothing goes off the rails between now and the season-opener against James Madison, T.J. Simmons, Marcus Simms, Sam James, Tevin Bush and Jovani Haskins will be the primary downfield targets in 2019.
To be clear, there is no shortage of depth or talent amongst West Virginia's receivers. In fact, the Mountaineers are in far better shape going into 2019 than they were in 2013 when the Geno Smith/Tavon Austin/Stedman Bailey hangover wracked what was once a program-defining offense. Trust me when I say that we're not in for that kind of letdown.
When you consider that West Virginia returns a battle-tested offensive line, a deep and talented backfield and a defense that will very likely improve from 2018, this wide receiver corps is perhaps the biggest unknown on the team. In that context, things really aren't that bad.
In summary, we should all be optimistic. While the best case scenario for West Virginia in 2018 is a nine win season, that record belies the strides that this program has made. 2019 could be a surprisingly good year for West Virginia and it will be the passing game, fronted by Allison, Simms and Simmons that sets the tone for the rest of the season. With Dana Holgorsen running the offense and a bevvy of young talent waiting for its time in the sun, anything is possible.
Perhaps the answer isn't to try and replace David Sills and Gary Jennings. Perhaps it's to let Marcus Simms and T.J. Simmons simply be Marcus Simms and T.J. Simmons- fast, physical, fearless. Maybe then, they and the rest of the Mountaineers receiving corps will go write their own legend and keep the air raid flame alight.