The offseason seems to drag on and on. While many of you are currently trekking down some stretch of interstate to celebrate July 4, some of us (myself included) are also looking forward to the month of September when America’s greatest pastime returns.
Summer workouts are gearing up, so veterans and newcomers alike will soon be strapping on pads to begin proper live football drills. For West Virginia there is ample, justifiable excitement surrounding the returning talent on both offensive and defensive sides of the ball. In addition, there will be a host of new faces suiting up for the Mountaineers in 2018. While most will take a redshirt or occupy limited roles throughout the season, several newcomers will grab a share of the spotlight and try to help WVU’s chances at making a run for the Big 12 throne.
Who among the new blood is most likely to make a name for himself this season? Let’s take a look at the tea leaves.
T.J. Simmons, WR (Alabama Transfer)
West Virginia is going to boast a treasure trove of skill options in 2018. Although debate around Will Grier’s draft prospects after this year continues to rage online, there is one fact that exists nearly outside the realm of debate. That fact would be the quality of backs and receivers flanking the senior quarterback this upcoming season. T.J. Simmons, the newest receiver to transfer from a certain program in Tuscaloosa, brings elephant-sized potential to the Mountaineers receiving corps.
The six-foot-two, 202 pound native of Pinson, Alabama looked to be firmly in the mix for playing time last season at Alabama before announcing his intent to transfer. The former three-star athlete is a welcome addition to WVU. He brings size, speed and experience playing on college’s biggest stage. If word out of the Puskar Center is to be believed, Simmons appears primed for a huge year. This can be overwhelmingly bad news if you are a defensive coordinator in the Big 12; given that David Sills, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms all return after posting a combined 2,739 yards and 24 TD’s in the 2017 season. While Simmons has yet to record a single statistic in a West Virginia uniform, the fact that he brandishes the ability to be a top target in an offense stocked with WR-1’s is a big deal. Look for Simmons to make a splash early and establish himself as a mainstay in Jake Spavital’s Air Raid for the foreseeable future.
Jovani Haskins, TE (Miami Transfer)
Jovani Haskins is one of two former ‘U’ players to make his way north from Coral Gables. Haskins is the type of tight end who seems to have been custom-manufactured for the modern game. Despite carrying a solid 240 pounds, the New Jersey native is a natural athlete that can run and make plays downfield. This offseason in particular has been rife with talk regarding the tight ends being more heavily featured in the pass game, which is good news all around.
While defenses will unquestionably target stalwarts David Sills and Gary Jennings out wide, Haskins (and the 270-pound human-tank hybrid, Trevon Wesco) will find themselves readily available in the middle of the field where Grier can gleefully rack up intermediate yardage. It’s a sign of not only maturity on Jake Spavital’s part, but also ingenuity, introducing schemes that allow for tight ends and “multiple” type players to take a more active role. Haskins is likely to get the most love out of any of the tight ends currently on the roster. Given the implications that means for the rest of the offense, that could potentially create a special year for the Mountaineers.
Jabril Robinson, DT (Clemson Transfer)
Ever since Clemson got routed in a certain bowl game back in 2012, the Tigers have seemingly bought permanent real estate at the highest echelon of college football. One of the many reasons the orange and purple crew from South Carolina have been on such a dominant run can be attributed to defensive line play. Every time you check a preseason watch list or tape from a previous season, it is like the Avengers have put on Clemson uniforms and lined up across from normal humans. This would explain why guys like Jabril Robinson sought life elsewhere after this past season.
The six-foot-two, 270-pound graduate transfer plans to challenge for a starting spot on WVU’s defensive line that doesn’t seem so depleted anymore. Having played in twenty-three games for Clemson over the past three seasons, Robinson is not only experienced but knows what it is like to hoist the CFP championship trophy. Flanked by fellow grad transfer Kenny Bigelow and West Virginia program veterans such as Ezekiel Rose and Reese Donahue, Robinson should feel confident that the move to Morgantown will pay immediate dividends.
Charlie Benton, LB (JUCO Transfer)
If there is any level of the Tony Gibson’s defense that should be cause for concern, it’s the linebackers. The LB corps was already faced with the task of replacing Al-Rasheed Benton and his 204 career tackles, but spring ACL injuries suffered by Quondarius Qualls and former Army All-American Brendan Ferns — both projected starters at LB — have created a big hole in the middle West Virginia’s defense. This was Ferns’ second injury to the same knee. David Long is a known commodity, but questions about the depth around him will persist well into the season.
One answer could presumably come in the form of converted safety Charlie Benton. Benton is a JuCo standout from Butler CC in Kansas who has added the necessary weight to his six-foot-three frame to play closer to the line of scrimmage. West Virginia has had recent success moving safeties down closer to the line. One specifically was Nick Kwiatkoski, where coverage skills combined with added muscle made for a versatile defender. In a perfect world, Benton wouldn’t be in the rotation for the 2018 season, so that he might have the chance to acclimate to the rigors of P5 football, but this world is far from perfect. The Mountaineers will need him to step up from day one to help Long and program legacy Dylan Tonkery elevate a defense that gave up an average of 31.5 PPG, good for 90th in the country. Long, a preseason All-American, will probably get the headlines, but Benton has an opportunity to become an enormous asset to WVU in the fall of 2018.
Dante Stills, DT
They say organic growth is the best growth, so it feels good to close this article out with an in-state freshman being brought into the fold. On the Mountaineers roster, Dante Stills is arguably the biggest in-state signing in the history of the program. A nearby Fairmont prodcut, Stills is boasting UA All-American credentials, an ESPN 300 rating and a slew of offers from blue bloods like Oklahoma, Georgia and Penn State. There’s really no underselling how important the six-foot-four, 290 pound freshman will be to the Mountaineers and their prospects of winning a Big 12 title and beyond.
However flashy football has become at the college level, games are still routinely won at the line of scrimmage. While WVU has had some talented players along the defensive front over the years, it’s been a while since the Mountaineers have dominated at the point of attack. In the Big 12, where quarterback play has become the conference’s de facto defining characteristic, applying pressure in the backfield and limiting an opponent’s running game can be the difference between scraping out a bowl bid as a seven win team or playing in Dallas come early December. Stills will have a hand in all of this. He’s too big of a talent to not see considerable reps from. Given the questions that still remain on the defensive side of the ball, Stills will have to grow up quickly in the 2018 season if all the hype is to be believed. What a year it could be for No. 55.