Saturday, February 6, 2016

Breaking down West Virginia's 2016 recruiting class

It wasn't clear if Dana Holgorsen was going to be able to keep his job after last season, a year in which the Mountaineers had a legitimately strong team that finished 24th in S&P but only went 8-5 thanks to a brutal schedule.

Holgorsen did keep his job though and shook up his staff by adding OL guru Joe Wickline as his offensive coordinator, although like with Texas I'm not sure that Wickline will be the primary playcaller but an adjunct who specializes in turning 2/3 star clay into All-B12 OL. The last time he was united with Holgorsen they nearly killed the rest of the Big 12 and now they're hoping to recreate that magic this year. They'll need to after losing several key pieces from a quality defense.

I'll be curious to read stories about how this OL adjusts to Wickline's methods of teaching. Essentially, you adapt to him, he doesn't adapt to you. That said, they return their former OL coach Ron Crook from Stanford who will probably be the primary instructor there.

This class was ranked 39th nationally and 5th in the Big 12, for whatever that's worth and marks a departure from their normal strategy of loading up on any Floridian athlete that would take them. Instead they took 11 kids from Ohio and Pennsylvania and stayed in the North and South East for the vast majority of the class save for some JUCOs.

The last few West Virginia classes loaded up on athletes but they haven't taken a ton of DL which worries me for their long-term hopes. One thing that's clear to me from watching tape of Holgorsen's last few classes, he's earnestly trying to recruit the fastest team in the league and will never lack for athletes on either side of the ball.



Holgorsen adapted to Howard and the lack of a good passing attack last year by emphasizing QB run RPOs but ideally they want a pocket passer who can execute normal "hand off or throw" RPOs and take deep shots off play-action. If they can also run the ball and allow those QB run RPOs, alls the better.


Cody Saunders: 6-2, 205. 3***
Panama City Beach, FL
Saunders is one of the only Floridians in this class, which is unusual for West Virginia since they often mine Florida (especially Miramar) for skill talent. Saunders is classified as a "pro-style" guy and let me list to you his SPARQ numbers as further evidence for why I hate that designation.
4.75 40, 4.24 shuttle, 34.6" vertical, 35.5' power ball toss.

This kid is a more than a little bit athletic and he runs plenty of QB run RPOs while also mixing in some scrambles and option runs that sometimes see him run between the tackles with power and burst. He's also got a great arm and is capable of throwing downfield on the run or throwing with accuracy outside of the hash marks. I think he's more comfortable right now ducking his head and running when nothing is there but if Holgorsen could program him to make Air Raid reads in the passing game he could become dominant.

Grade: A-
Saunders has exceptional potential in the Holgo-Raid offense and could very easily find a role as a wildcat operator, a receiver, or on defense if he can't handle the mental challenges of reading the field and making decisions as a QB. I don't know if he'll be as great as his physical talent would allow but his athleticism means he'll have a high floor as a scholarship player.

Running back

Wendell Smallwood is pretty much the ideal West Virginia RB. Holgorsen likes to do a lot with his backs and utilize them as lead blockers, receivers, inside runners, or all-around feature backs. His offense easily adapts to make use of varying skill sets so any good talent can find a role.


Kennedy McKoy: 6-0, 190. 3***
Lexington, NC
Like many of the backs in this class, McKoy is good at running power but his preference is to attack defenses with either the cut upfield behind the double team or the bounce outside rather than finding the cutback lane. If Wickline uses power at WV he should be sure to teach the blocking scheme to allow that "bounce" lane outside. When McKoy gets into the open field his ability to change gears and stop on a dime makes him pretty dangerous. He can also flex out and catch passes.

Martell Pettaway: 5-10, 205. 3***
Detroit, MI
Pettaway is another guy that seems to prefer to bounce runs outside but he's more of a hard-running, between the tackles type than McKoy. If he gets loose he can hurt you some but he's more of a 4.7 type sprinter who's best as a guy to help you pick up steady gains. There's also a chance he ends up as a 230 pound FB.

Justin Crawford: 6-0, 195. 3***
Senatobia, MS (JUCO)
Crawford is pretty versatile, with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield or run the ball. I think this is more of an attempt to get someone on campus who's more college-ready after playing JUCO-ball to help replace Smallwood while McKoy and Pettaway learn the craft.

Grade: B-
There's a lot of depth here and McKoy could be special but none of them seem like truly dominant players, although there's no doubt they could be plenty productive if the OL is good and the constraint passing game is working.


West Virginia will play a lot of two-back and three-back sets on offense if they have the RB depth to do it and guys that are willing and able to throw blocks. I think some of their more blocking-minded guys though are failed LBs, beefed up RBs, and gritty walk-ons. They'll use a TE at times, especially in short-yardage settings, but it isn't a big part of the offense.


Trevon Wesco: 6-5, 260. 3***
Scranton, PA (JUCO)
Every year it seems like half the Lackawanna CC roster is transferring into the Big 12, they must be a dominant program. Wesco knows how to catch the ball but you bring him into the game to bring beef and more double teams at the point of attack to run zone on people. He can block a DE without help from an attached position.

Grade: C+
Wesco brings real value at a position that can be hard to fill if your roster isn't loaded up with DE prospects, the less effective of which can be bulked up and moved over to play TE. I don't think he'll be having an obvious impact over the next few years but he may prove to be pretty valuable to the staff in shoring up their protections and runs.


Holgorsen only seems to care about having the fastest freaking WR corps in the league. He'll play tiny guys outside at WR and his system makes it pretty easy to utilize speed all over the field if he can just find it and teach it to catch the ball.


Steven Smothers: 5-10, 152. 4****
Reisterstown, MD
I'd guess that Smothers plays a role similar to Mario Alford, roasting the 2nd corner on opposing teams who lacks the speed to keep up with him. Or if he proves less adept at route running, perhaps he plays more of a slotback/flex RB role like Tavon Austin back in the day. Smothers is a legit 4.5 guy who will need to bulk up a bit but will be one of the fastest players on the field in every game.

Marcus Simms: 6-0, 175. 3***
Sandy Spring, MD
Another Maryland kid finishes out the offensive skill takes for Holgs. For my money Simms is even better than the higher-ranked Smothers. On his tape opposing teams keep trying to play him with a cushion and he'll just run past them or suck them in with a double move before downshifting and then running by them. He has a fantastic knack for running double moves and won't be a guy that opponents feel good about leaving on an island. Potentially a true ISO guy here.

Grade: B+
Not many numbers here but both of these guys have speed and athletic traits that simply can't be taught. It's hard to believe that at least one of them won't end up becoming a real terror in a few years.

Offensive line
Wickline's vision for OL isn't really different from what West Virginia has been doing for the last few years, namely trying to play as big a group as possible and pounding the ball up the middle when teams spread out with inside zone and power. They're already massive and Wickline will continue to look for massive kids but with an eye for 2/3 stars that will endure his gruff nature and exacting attention to details.


Craig Smith: 6-7, 305. 3***
Tyler, TX (JUCO)

I think Smith is the pick of the litter here although that may be unfair since he's a JUCO and the rest are HS pups. On the other hand, he's gigantic and light on his feet. The reason that teams often jump at grabbing guys that are 6'6" or taller is that it's easier for them to be quick enough to execute schemes like outside zone that ask them to beat opponents with footwork while still overpowering them with size and muscle. At 305, Smith is actually built pretty lean but when he's got his big hands on you and some leverage he may as be 400 because you're going for a ride. I think he'll play soon.

Jacob Buccigrossi: 6-4, 275. 3***
Pittsburgh, PA
He plays offensive and defensive tackle on his film but although he's reasonably quick, I think he'll move inside to guard and if he proves to be quick enough perhaps become a lead guard to run power and counter behind.

Chase Behrndt: 6-4, 295. 3***
Ballwin, MO
This guy is a true mauler, he fires out low with a flat back and he loves the violent aspects of the game. He'll end up as a guard or center and be a road grader in Wickline's inside zone schemes. He's a guy that will test Holgorsen's commitment to continuing to mix in a lot of power or just bending to Wickline's preference and focusing on zone.

Josh Sills: 6-5, 319. 3***
Byesville, OH
Sills is just athletic enough and certainly long enough that I think he'll get some looks at tackle, perhaps after re-working his body in college S&C he'll find greater flexibility and speed, but if not he's a good fit as a guard for Wickline that can envelop an opposing DL and turn their shoulders to open a crease without needing to work with a double team.

Grade: B
West Virginia is going to find some good guards from this group, no doubt, and perhaps Smith provides immediate help at tackle to help replace Marquis Lucas and buy some time for Wickline to find more tackles on their roster. Something to watch for though is whether these guys take to Wickline or whether he overhauls the roster with his own selections.


Defensive line

This has been where West Virginia has really struggled defensively. They've done a good job of developing versatile LBs and loading up the secondary with good athletes that can play Gibson's "all or nothing" schemes that bring a combo of max coverage with zero blitzes, they haven't done a great job of finding difference-makers on the DL and they really need a new nose tackle to control the A-gaps now that Kyle Rose is finally gone.


Jeffery Pooler: 6-4, 272. 2**
Dayton, OH
I'm not sure why Pooler is ranked so low, as a nose tackle prospect he's pretty solid. He plays low for a guy that's 6'4" and is quick enough to avoid getting reached by opposing guards. He's not going to add much pass-rush but that's not what WV is looking for here anyways. He'll end up as a 6'4" 300+ pound dude that helps keep their LBs clean.

Reese Donahue: 6-5, 245. 3***
Ona, WV
I think the fact that Donahue is an in-state kid has people overlooking how valuable a signing he is for this team. Finding those protective DEs that can set the edge, work their way into interior gaps to clog things up, keep the LBs free and running to the football, and adding a touch of pass rush are invaluable in a 3-3-5 defense. Donahue is going to need to add some serious weight but he has the frame to grow into an ideal 4i-technique DE.

Grade: C
Both of these guys are good takes, but West Virginia needs to be taking like 3-5 guys like these two in order to ensure that they have a sturdy DL that can protect their back seven every season. I think Holgorsen has tended to sacrifice DL in order to field enough athletes for his passing game and aggressive defense to work and it's a risky bet.


Without a crop of DL that will be likely to do more than help hold the point of attack it becomes absolutely essential that West Virginia find playmakers at linebacker that can be blitzers that have to be accounted for. In general, these guys need to be highly disruptive and mobile to make the most of the protection that Gibson's DL and DB schemes offer them.


Brendan Ferns: 6-2, 215. 4****
Saint Clairsville, OH
Ferns is one of the most important hauls of the class, a dude who had offers from ERRBODY including Big 10 powers like Ohio State, Michigan State, and Michigan, perennial recruiting champion Alabama, and fellow B12 Oklahoma. This kid could have chosen to play in any conference at the top school and yet he chose West Virginia for whatever reason.
The reason he's so highly sought after is that he's an elite athlete for the LB position, he's excellent in coverage and capable of deep and exact drops, and he has sideline to sideline range. They couldn't have done much better in finding a replacement for Nick Kwiatkowski.

Logan Thimons: 6-1, 220. 3***
Server, PA
Call me crazy but I actually think Thimons has a chance to be an even better take than Ferns. Why? Because while he doesn't have the same kind of lateral range, he closes hard on the ball and he spent his senior year playing DE and nose tackle in a 3-4 defense. On that tape you see a kid that knows how to beat blocks on the interior, find the ball, and chase down ball carriers in the backfield.
The Mountaineer scheme really needs guys who can play in a broom closet, beat blocks, and get interior pressure in the pass rush. Thimons is that guy and he'd be a great complement to Ferns.

Zach Sandwisch: 6-3, 220. 3***
Toledo, OH
Sandwisch is a very solid, traditional OLB take. He played a lot of 4-3 Under Sam in high school and clearly understood how to play force, take on blocks on the perimeter, and had some range chasing the ball out of the box. He's a guy that could do damage if the blitz scheme helps him, which it will, and is yet another good 3-3 LB take.

Adam Hensley: 6-3, 225. 3***
Dayton, OH
They really loaded up on Ohioan linebackers in this class and they got some solid ones. Hensley has valuable experience playing inside-backer in a region that still asks guys to take on lead blocks in the hole. He's fast enough to be dangerous on the blitz but Thimons or maybe Ferns are the only guys here I think opponents will even consider scheming to block in the pass rush. He has the speed to play inside-backer in the Big 12 but could also become a nice fullback if he can't crack the depth chart.

Grade: B+
There's only one obvious impact guy here and that's Ferns but I think Thimons, Sandwisch, and Hensley are all very good 3-3 LB takes that could be good in their roles in this defense. However, if the DL doesn't pan out and the Mountaineers can't keep these guys relatively clean you aren't going to see them have a chance to dominate the box. These guys are fits to the puzzle, not guys that you build around.


Tony Gibson's scheme asks quite a bit of his secondary and these guys have to be able to play some press-man coverage without safety help at times and at other times play deep zone and help clean up by making tackles in the run game. Above all else, they prize length and versatility from their commitments here but they really need at least one lockdown corner on their team. Of course, who doesn't?


Sean Mahone: 6-0, 198. 3***
West Chester, OH
Mahone is a borderline take at corner that might end up at safety if he doesn't develop the skills to play outside. He's got the size they are looking for and is at his best when playing in deep zone over the top.

Elijah Battle: 6-1, 190. 3***
Dodge City, KS (JUCO)
The Mountaineer secondary was decimated (worse actually, when you consider the word's origin) by graduation which was quite a blow because they had quite the secondary last year. They're losing both starting corners and are surely hoping Battle helps fill in the gaps while all of their young guys from the 2015 and 2016 classes learn the ropes.
Battle was a good shuffle-technique corner in the JUCO ranks that could play some press-bail or even bump'n'run against some WRs but if they have to ask him to guard an ISO WR by his lonesome I don't think that will end well. Could be a starting-caliber player in the short-term though.

Jacob Long: 6-0, 180. 3***
Hamilton, OH
Long is a great overall athlete and I was impressed by how attuned he seemed to be on his film to the routes opposing WRs were trying to run. He's a tough dude, though he'll need to bulk up a bit, and played some QB in HS as well. I think this guy has some nice potential down the line, a cerebral athlete.

Mike Daniels: 6-0, 195. 2**
New York, NY (JUCO)
Daniels has three years to play two so he's a little more than just another depth filler like Battle. He's excellent playing off man and snagged several INTs just by being near the ball and having flypaper hands, he kinda reminds me of Zach Sanchez in that regard. He can also play some press coverage and is probably a 4.6 guy and capable of turning and running with people.

Jacquez Adams: 6-1, 170. 2**
New Berlin, NY (Prep)
Adams was a part of the 2015 class that I really liked, a super smooth athlete who was then only about 152 and needed to attend Milford Academy to get eligible before joining the Mountaineers for this spring semester. He's got the hips to play corner, perhaps even grow into the lockdown guy they need, and so far his body is responding well to adding weight. You can't look past his 6'1" height either, that sure helps.

Grade: B
The Mountaineers added depth, some guys that might be able to help immediately, and have a few players here that might grow into the kinds of corners that can make this defense really great. No stunning prospect here though and Gibson will have to continue to earn his checks developing these cats.


As demanding as the corner position is in this defense, safety is probably even harder. The preponderance of zero blitzes requires that these guys be able to play man coverage or they can't see the field. They also have the same needs everyone else has for guys that can play deep zone, blitz the edge, and be an extra guy in the box to stop the run.


Toyous Avery: 6-0, 200. 3***
Coffeyville, KS (JUCO)
Yet another Jayhawk JUCO product that chose a non-KSU school, I think we'll find that really matters when we look at Snyder's 2016 class. Anyways, Avery is actually one of my favorite guys in this class. His change of direction and ability to cover a ton of ground in deep zone is above average for the Big 12. He'll have to learn to man people up but perhaps they can use Dravon Henry more in that role and drop Avery deep.

Jovanni Stewart: 5-9, 185. 2**
Katy, TX
I don't know what to do about what I'm starting to see as the "2016 Katy phenomenon" in which many people seem to think that the top players from a JUGGERNAUT Texas HS Championship team are somewhat untrustworthy as "products of a system" rather than simply being great football players. RB Kyle Porter was one guy I thought was legitimately good and would have excelled just about anywhere, Jovanni Stewart seems to be another.

The defense Stewart was a part of is going to go down as one of the greatest defenses that the state of Texas has ever seen. Playing at the highest level of Texas football at the height of the spread era they shut out 10 opponents, including their semifinal opponent. I should probably write about them at some point.

Anyways, Stewart was the edge-backer in this legion of death-bringers and would regularly play force or blitz on the edge or inside. He basically played Eric Striker's position but he honestly reminds me of Tyrann Mathieu, he's got a similar savagery and effectiveness to his play thanks to ultra-quicks and confident play. I see him as a nickel, or "spur" in Mountaineer parlance, that everyone eventually feels dumb for overlooking.

I know recruitniks are going to laugh so I'm including his senior stats and hudl here:

Dude had 101 tackles, eight forced fumbles, 10 pass break-ups, and 10 sacks. Maybe I'm just being thrown off by the Katy "system" or maybe this kid is a football player who everyone is ignoring because he's on a great team, he's undersized, and he played linebacker in high school.

I'm all in on Jovanni Stewart.

Kyzir White: 6-3, 210. 3***
Scranton, PA (JUCO)
Another product of the Lackawanna JUCO program and the favorite to replace hard-hittin' KJ Dillon as the Spur safety in 2016. White has great COD, he plays mean, and he can cover ground against the run from a deep safety alignment. I'm not sure how well he can play man coverage on a slot without safety help but he seems like a disruptive guy and a good short term replacement for Dillon until my man Stewart is ready to take over this world.

Dylan Tonkery: 6-0, 185. 3***
Bridgeport, WV
You gotta take the in-state stars sometimes, and this kid reminds me of former Texas safety Blake Gideon. He probably runs about a 4.7, he's smart and plays tons of positions, and he has some lateral range as well. The question will be how fast and flexible he is at 200 pounds but I think his future is promising. He could be a good support safety or perhaps a nickel, whether he will be a guy you trust to play man coverage I'm less confident about.

If his body really takes to college S&C it's not out of the question to imagine him spinning down to LB like Kwaitkowski did before him.

Grade: B+
The Mountaineers got two guys that will probably be very useful in the short-term and a couple of gems that I think might be good down the road. I'm not sure if they did a great job of getting guys that will be able to play man coverage (Tonkery and White are my concerns here) but it's reasonable to conclude that the cornerbacks that don't hold up outside will be moved inside to safety.

Overall Gibson definitely got some good players and in great enough quantity to ensure that West Virginia will be able to find what they need to keep playing their aggressive brand of defense. At least in the back seven.

Don't be shocked if they evolve into a 2-4 defense to make the most of this class down the line.


  1. Love the honey badger comparison I can see it w the KATY product, Toyous is also one of my favorites we got I think our D backs are in really good shape it's all about whether the D line and linebackers can fill in

  2. just definitely don't see Tonk moving up to backer, not even sure he could play spur but we will see I definitely see potential in the kid

    1. His brother Wes went from being a 185 pound high schooler to a 223 pound linebacker.

  3. You might have been a little generous with your defensive line grade. While they aren't bad prospects, neither guy looks particularly well-suited to play 3-3 DE or NT. And WVU wasn't exactly deep at those positions to begin with. But as you suggest, WVU may switch to a 2-4 in the coming years to better utilize their depth at LB (and lack thereof at DL).

    1. I disagree, I think one projects well to 0-tech and the other to a 4i-tech.

    2. That's a lot of increased bulk to project, particularly for Donahue.

    3. It's really normal for guys of their size after arriving in college.

  4. I really enjoyed your analysis. The film of Stewart made my heart sing--the dude can really play and has a great nose for the ball. Please send us some more Katy "system" players like him. The only thing that could have enhanced your column is if you had included the 2015 redshirt players. That may have made the DL look a little more solid. But no question, Kyle Rose is going to be hard to replace--he was an unsung hero.