The challenges facing West Virginia head coach Neal Brown in his second season are continuing to pile up, both on the field and off.
On the field, Brown has expressed a desire for the Mountaineers to be “the most improved team in college football” in 2020. To make that improvement happen team-wide, Brown will need his younger players to make strides while also replacing valuable starters that graduated after last season.
“Everybody in our program will be better in year two,” Brown said after one of the team’s only practices this Spring. “They just know what to expect better.”
A lackluster 5-7 (3-6 Big 12) 2019 campaign provides the perfect opportunities for improvement performance-wise. There are a number of areas in need of improvement on both sides of the ball, however, the Mountaineers’ running game rises to the top of the list.
In 2019 the Mountaineers finished dead last in the Big 12 in rushing yards, a full 850 yards behind the second-to-last team. WVU runner rushed for just 879 yards last season. Every other Big 12 team rushed for at least 1,700 yards.
The lack of rushing defense affected WVU’s passing game as well, forcing the Mountaineers to throw the ball 454 times, the fourth-most in the conference. Despite the volume of passing the Mountaineers had to do, WVU quarterbacks were second-to-last in the conference in passing efficiency at 127.5.
The challenges Brown faces on defense are mainly personnel issues. WVU will return just four starters from the team’s opener against JMU last season, nose tackle Darius Stills, linebacker Dylan Tonkery, end Jeffery Pooler Jr. and safety Sean Mahone. While underclassmen like Dante Stills, Tykee Smith and Kerry Martin emerged as impact players as the season went on, even more players will have to step up in 2020 to replace the talent the team lost.
Off the field, Brown has to deal with the looming concerns of COVID-19 and the possibility for a program-wide outbreak, the likes of which have already forced some school to halt football activities for the time being. If trying to control a global pandemic was not enough already, Brown is now also dealing with feelings of mistreatment and racism among the players after sophomore safety Kerry Martin Jr. made his feelings towards defensive coordinator Vic Koenning known on Twitter last month.
West Virginia has COVID contained for the moment. WVU has announced six positive cases among football student-athletes, fewer than most other Big 12 schools. Brown is not going to relax after a good start, however, as he has already committed to maintaining strict precautionary measures for as long as necessary.
In response to Martin, Brown has issued support for the university’s independent investigation into Koenning’s conduct as well as doubling down on his commitment to creating a culture built on relationships at WVU.
On a call with reporters two weeks ago, Brown talked about how difficult it can be to account for everything that is happening in the world while also preparing for a football season.
“It’s complex times and you’re going into really new territory at all points,” Brown said. “Unfortunately, you can’t have a plan for everything and so we’re learning as we’re going, trying to be proactive rather than reactive. It’s a difficult time, I think there’s a lot of challenging and difficult times right now in a lot of different professions.”
It could be an uphill battle for Brown and the Mountaineers in 2020. A challenging non-conference season opener against the Florida State Seminoles on September 5 could set the tone for the entire season, good or bad.
‘Meet the Mountaineers’ is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. Tomorrow we will start with the offensive side of the ball by talking about the offensive coaching staff.