Veterans return, but holes need filled for WVU

As soon at the national championship game finished early Tuesday, ESPN wasted no time in releasing its “way too early” top 25 for the next college football season.

Checking into the top 10 — barely — is WVU, at No. 10. Oklahoma is ranked ahead of the Mountaineers, at No. 4, but
ESPN said WVU will be the top threat to dethrone the Sooners in the Big 12.

To no one’s surprise, the return of Will Grier and David Sills is cited for the optimism in the Mountaineers, as well as returning seven starters on offense and defense.

With 14 starters back, though, it means eight won’t be. Finding replacements for those positions will be vital to how many games WVU will win in 2018 and if it wants to be a serious Big 12 contender.

Here’s a look at who will not be returning in 2018 and who could step in to fill the voids:

— The biggest hole is left by linebacker Al-Rasheed Benton. as the “Mike.” As a senior captain, Benton was a two-year starter and one of head coach Dana Holgorsen’s favorite players. Benton led the Mountaineers in tackles, with 110, but his leadership will be missed more than anything.

Another reason his loss could make an impact is there is no clear answer to who will replace Benton. Will David Long move from his outside position to he inside? Or will backups Brendan Ferns, Zach Sandwisch and Adam Hensley step up and grab the spot in camp?

— Kyzir White took the starting “spur” safety position when he arrived as a junior-college transfer, in 2016, and didn’t let it go. He finished second on the team in tackles, with 94, and was the one safety that didn’t move around to other positions.

There will be more shuffling around to see who starts where in 2018, as Toyous Avery, Kenny Robinson and Dravon-Askew Henry return. Avery seems like the most logical answer to move over to spur, but Derrek Pitts and JoVanni Stewart could get looks, too.

— The final position(s) on defense is cornerback, and for the third year in a row, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson will need to replace both starters. Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels graduated, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t experience coming back.

Hakeem Bailey played in
11 games as a sophomore, and while he isn’t guaranteed a starting job, he should be the favorite. Others to watch are JUCO transfers Keith Washington, Josh Norwood and Fontez Davis.

— Three-year starter Kyle Bosch is gone from the offensive line, but his guard position is the only void heading into 2018. Isaiah Hardy, though not ready as a late enrollee, played a lot this season and could be the favorite as a senior. Kelby Wickline and Jacob Buccigrossi could also get looks.

— Ka’Raun White may not have had the production his brother Kevin did, but he certainly made a name for himself during his three years at WVU. He had 1,004 yards and 12 touchdowns this season.

The natural replacement will be Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons, a former 4-star recruit who caught six passes for
82 yards and a touchdown in Alabama’s spring game last year.

— The final two holes are in the offensive backfield, with the losses of running back Justin Crawford and fullback Elijah Wellman. Kennedy McKoy is the obvious pick to replace Crawford, but don’t sleep on Martell Pettaway.

There is no clear-cut fullback on the roster, but a tight end hybrid could involve Jovani Haskins and Elijah Drummond.

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