MORGANTOWN, WV (AP) — Neil Brown took himself out of the equation after West Virginia’s offense struggled last season.
The fourth-year coach in January turned the play-calling duties over to recently hired offensive coordinator Graham Harrell, who was prolific in the same role at Southern California and North Texas and as a quarterback under Mike Leach at Texas Tech. The Trojans led the Pac-12 in passing and total offense last season.
West Virginia will certainly need Harrell’s help. The Mountaineers ranked eighth in total offense in the Big 12 with a 371-yard average and scored the second-most touchdowns.
“He brought a different energy,” Brown said. “He is self-confident, but not arrogant. He is extremely modest. It helps that he’s been a great player in this league, and I think that gets the attention of players on your current roster as well as recruiting. He’s been able to have success with different types of players and different types of offenses.”
Harrell reunited with quarterback Jay T. Daniels, who played one half at USC as a sophomore under Harrell in the 2019 championship before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Daniels announced in April that he was transferring to West Virginia from national champion Georgia State, where he went 7-0 as a starter but lost the starting job last season.
Daniels is among four quarterbacks hoping to earn a starting job and replace two-year starter Jarrett Dodge, who entered the transfer window in the offseason.
West Virginia, which has 33 new players on its roster, opens the season Sept. 1 at No. 17 Pittsburgh.
BROWN’S SIGNIFICANT YEAR
Brown is 17-18 with one winning season and finished fifth in the Big 12, so this year could be pivotal for his job security. And with four ranked teams on the schedule, it won’t be easy. Another sub.-500 record would lead West Virginia to its worst stretch of four straight losing seasons under Frank Cignetti Sr. from 1976-79.
If there’s anything that can put the Browns back in the good graces of the home fans, a win over the Mountaineers’ biggest rival in the season opener would be a start. The Backyard Brawl was last played in 2011 during the team’s final season in the Big East.
“It’s been a great carrot for our guys because we’ve gone through the winter, spring ball and now summer practice to know that, man, we not only have a game to look forward to, but a rivalry game that’s going to be in prime time,” Brown said.
LAW ENFORCEMENT IN PENALTY
West Virginia has all five starters back on the offensive line, but lost three of its top five receivers to transfers. Running backs Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James combined for 1,080 yards and eight touchdowns.
West Virginia is also weak in rebounding. Tony Mathis is taking over after the Lady Browns’ leading rusher entered the NFL draft. Mathis ran for 327 yards and four scores a year ago. His two backups have a combined two classes in college.
West Virginia lost its top five tacklers. The addition of former Syracuse midfielder Lee Kpogba could help stem the departure of leading man Josh Chandler-Semed. Defensive backs Dante Stills and Tyge Alston, who return to the defensive unit, had 12 sacks last season. The secondary, anchored by cornerback Charles Woods, added numerous transfers. The Mountaineers are short on experience at safety and could get help from North Dakota State running back Jasir Cox.
“We really like the pieces that are there,” defensive coordinator Jordan Leslie said.
THE PUNT IS BACK
Brown is looking to improve his punt return after West Virginia averaged 3.1 yards per attempt, which was last in the Big 12, and fumbled two punts last season, one of which led to an Oklahoma State touchdown.
After the Pitt game, West Virginia has other games on Thursday night, Sept. 22 at Virginia Tech and at home on Oct. 13 against No. 10 Baylor. Other ranked opponents include Nov. 12 at home against No. 9 Oklahoma and Nov. 26 at No. 12 Oklahoma State. Home and league opener Sept. 10 against Kansas.