The Mountaineers also lose their leading pass-rusher Shaq Riddick, who had 11 tackles for loss and seven sacks a year ago.
Four big pieces from a team that was 7-6 last year.
Perhaps the most concerning facet of the 2015 West Virginia football team is that they have to play games in Norman, Waco, Ft. Worth, and Manhattan. It'd be harder to put together a more difficult Big 12 road slate, especially for 2015.
The schedule alone is almost an immediate disqualifier for considering the 'Neers as serious B12 contenders, even if all of those players mentioned above were returning.
However, when you look a little deeper there are some aspects to this team that make them intriguing. There's a chance that even if they can't win the league in 2015 they might spoil someone else's season and even finish with something in the range of 8-10 wins.
Despite their unimpressive win total, WV had a solid S&P ranking of 40 from a year ago. This was a pretty good offensive team and a pretty good defensive team with two defining traits that made them feisty on both sides of the ball.
First, they started Mario Alford and Kevin White opposite of each other as their X and Z receivers. Most Big 12 defenses don't even have a scheme that allows them to double both outside receivers unless they drop eight players into coverage. Nevertheless, most teams probably wanted to double both receivers. Alford ran a 4.43 40 at the combine while Kevin White ran a 4.35 and is 6'3" 215 to boot. These were horrifying match-ups.
Trickett wasn't healthy enough throughout the year to allow them to fully maximize this advantage, but they still did plenty of damage.
Second, everyone in their secondary could play man coverage and tackle reasonably well, which allowed DC Tony Gibson to bring a wide variety of blitzes and have a safety net from their deep coverage. They weren't amazing up front and didn't get as much play-making out of that versatility in the form of sacks and turnovers as you'd hope for, but they were able to do enough to be more than a nuisance to opposing offenses.
There are three defining traits about the 2015 Mountaineers that could make them pretty feisty again in 2015, maybe even strong, maybe even contenders.
Defining Trait 1: That secondary
They're all back and I have them as the 5th best group in the nation. When you combine playing another year in Tony Gibson's 3-3-5 with likely growth from free safety Karl Joseph you have a recipe for this unit to go from picking off 10 passes in 2014 to as many as 15 or 20 in 2015.
Perhaps what they do best is allow West Virginia to blitz aggressively and make explosive plays difficult for opponents when playing one of their numerous varieties of three-deep coverage.
Defining Trait 2: Offensive speed, again
West Virginia always recruits lots of speed, it's the name of the game for them as their entire offensive system is predicated around getting fast guys in space and allowing them to get to work. Even after graduating two of the fastest receivers in the Big 12 they are confronting opponents in 2015 with two of the faster players at their respective positions.
Shelton Gibson hasn't seen much playing time yet but Dana Holgorsen called him the fastest player he's coached...you might suspect this is just hyperbole since in addition to coaching White and Alford he's also coached Tavon Austin, Justin Blackmon, Wes Welker, and several other Air Raid heroes.
However, take a look at Gibson's hudl and you'll see what appears to at least be another 4.4 type burner if not the absolute speed demon Holgorsen was selling at media days.
Then there's Wendell Smallwood, a very effective back who can also catch the ball out of the backfield. Smallwood ran for 722 yards in 2014 at 4.9 ypc with another 325 yards receiving.
Back-up QB William Crest is apparently going to get in on the action as well as Holgorsen looks to involve his speed in some kind of RB/WR hybrid position. The Holgo-Raid is simple enough that it shouldn't be too hard for them to incorporate all the speed on the roster.
West Virginia can run a wide variety of formations and schemes in 2015 with their personnel but some of them will really put some explosive speed on the field. When you factor in QB Skyler Howard's ability to pose a threat as a runner you can't afford to ignore then you have a team that can really put stress on opponents.
Defining Trait 3: Some experience in the middle
In addition to being able to deploy one of the most athletic skill groups in the entire conference, West Virginia also has some experience returning in the middle of the field. They'll attack the middle of the field on offense with RB Rushel Shell, TE/FB Cody Clay, LG Adam Pankey, and OC Tyler Orlosky who all offer some power and a year of experience.
On defense their LB corps of Kwiatkowski, Barber, and Petteway is one of the most experienced groups in the country and will be playing behind a DL of Christian Brown, Kyle Rose, and Noble Nwachukwu that have also all played a lot of Big 12 football.
In the Big 12 you want to be athletic on the outside and experienced on the inside, West Virginia checks both boxes on both sides of the ball.
There are four questions for this team that will determine if West Virginia can actually make something happen and break through with an eight win season to save Holgorsen's job.
Question 1: Can they throw the ball downfield?
Skyler Howard's one big failing in the bowl contest with A&M was misfiring on some vertical throws that the Aggies left open to the 'Neers. A lot of these types of throws, such as the fade, are just about timing and muscle memory so there's a good chance that Howard will make up ground here in 2015.
Of course, he may not be able to set his feet and nail the timing if WV can't find a left tackle to keep him upright, which they hope to have in Yodny Cajuste.
There's also the question of whether Gibson's speed or Daikiel Shorts' size (6'1") translates to WV having a deep threat with which to make teams pay for trying to load up the box or sending pass-rushers to knock over Howard.
The answer to the blitz last year was pretty straightforward, throw a fade route to Kevin White. The solutions in 2015 may have to be more nuanced.
Question 2: Who steps up on the weakside?
West Virginia played a wide variety of fronts in 2014, including a "46" style look that used their sam and will linebackers up on the line as edge/contain players while playing "buck" safety Karl Joseph in the box.
Other times they'd drop Joseph as an edge/contain player while shifting their linebackers over to the strongside, their 3-3-5 personnel afford them a great deal of flexibility. The key is finding another OLB opposite Kwiatkowski that can play the edge or in the box as the weakside linebacker.
Ideally they'd find a player that could play as a 9-tech and take the edge, be a player opponents have to account for stunting inside on the blitz, be solid and aware in underneath coverage, and understand how to fit runs between the tackles.
It's a diverse role and West Virginia uses some disguise to set up their LBs for success by allowing them to appear where unexpected and be shielded from targeted by opposing game plans.
Shaq Petteway is the man who's next in line and at 6'0" 230. He's not exactly what you'd picture as the ideal fit but if he can be explosive in the pass-rush and versatile in his skill set he'll have a chance to make a lot of plays in 2015.
Question 3: Is there an impact player on the defensive line?
With Shaq Riddick gone the biggest question on defense is who will take advantage of the 1-on-1 match-ups afforded by DC Gibson's blitzing schemes. Nose tackle Kyle Rose is more of a space filler who will work to keep their LBs clean and Christian Brown will serve a similar role as a tackle/end.
None of the linebackers necessarily stand out as guys that will contribute a lot of pass-rushing acumen to this team, which leaves the end position vacated by Riddick as the most likely source of play-making.
Nwachukwu had eight tackles for loss and four pass break-ups a year ago and has been praised as being potentially dominant but merely inconsistent, which for a redshirt sophomore was still fairly reasonable. He'll need to finish plays in 2015 and get to the QB, there's really not another solution if he can't do it except to play another DE.
The LBs and DBs already need to finish more pressures on the QB when they blitz before you ask them to also replace Riddick's production. When you also consider how often Gibson relies on a three-man rush it becomes clear that they need a breakthrough from their DL.
If West Virginia can't pair an ability to play aggressive coverages and experienced safeties with pressure on the quarterback they will not achieve their potential to force turnovers in 2015 and their defense may not be as good as it needs to be.
Question 4: Can this team win on the road?
It's hard to imagine West Virginia having the kind of season that would signal a breakthrough without them winning a big game on the road. None of their home game opponents are necessarily high profile enough to really count for much unless Texas or Oklahoma State have big seasons.
Winning on the road requires ball security, team communication, and preparation that are usually marks of a veteran team. West Virginia is that, except at QB where Skyler Howard has not yet experienced what it's like to identify coverages or blitzes while 50k+ fans are screaming at him.
West Virginia will always score points with Dana Holgorsen at the helm. His spread-I/Holgo-Raid offense is great at putting stress on defensive systems and utilizing the speed that he's successfully stockpiled in Morgantown. He's taking on the challenge of coaching the QBs personally to make sure this season goes the way it should for West Virginia.
This is the best defensive personnel he's had since he took over the program, if they can make a leap and play top 25 level defense while Dana reloads the offense this could be a very good team.
If not? Dana might become a hot commodity as an OC hire after West Virginia's new athletic director throws him out. Should be fun to watch, especially for fans of teams with big question marks of their own in their offensive staff.