Stale, bland and downright boring — that was oftentimes the quick analysis for WVU’s offense the last three seasons under head coach Neal Brown.
When he was hired from Troy in early 2019, there was no doubt the previous coaching staff under Dana Holgorsen left little to work with, and it was up to Brown to clean up the mess.
Three years later, there has been little improvement, even to the point Brown said he self-reflected on what he needed to do to make it better.
Last season, the Mountaineers, in a 6-7 season, were 88th nationally in scoring offense, averaging 25.2 points per game. Worse yet, they were 103rd in rushing (123.62) and 86th in total offense (371.5).
There was a big jump in passing, up to 55th at 247.9 yards per game, but there is no doubt quarterback play was inconsistent throughout.
After WVU was held out of the end zone in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl against Minnesota in late December, questions arose all across the board, but the biggest was, “What will Neal Brown do to fix it?”
Brown rose through the coaching ranks as an offensive mind, even handling most of the play-calling duties the last three years with the Mountaineers.
The first step was moving more toward fulfilling his role as a head coach — overseeing an entire program — and giving up play-calling, which Brown made a big splash by bringing in former Texas Tech quarterback and ex-USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell to the same position.
Now, the Mountaineers have an identity on offense, rather than Brown wearing too many hats on game day and making questionable decisions with no only play-calling, but game management.
“Since the end of the season, I have spent time reflecting on the program, and take responsibility, knowing we have to be better offensively,” Brown said after the hire in January. “I’ve been serving in a dual role as the offensive coordinator and head coach, and we need to bring in another voice for the offense. Having Graham as the offensive coordinator will make us a better, more-efficient offense and move us in the direction we need to head. In turn, that will allow me to be a more-effective CEO of the Mountaineer football program.”
Harrell will bring an Air-Raid philosophy back to Morgantown, with every offense he’s guided at North Texas and USC reaching the top 25 nationally in pass offense every year since 2017.
But the important part is this is his offense.
Before, there may have been one too many voices in the room, and with news co-offensive coordinator Gerad Parker is leaving to become the tight ends coach at Notre Dame, there could be few remnants of what WVU was offensively in 2020 and 2021.
Moving on to personnel, quarterback Jarret Doege’s decision to transfer to Western Kentucky was best for both parties. While completely unfair on most occasions, Doege had a falling out with the WVU fanbase and got out when he could.
On the other hand, his limitations were a big reason the offense struggled mightily at times.
Now, there will be an open competition this spring, summer and during fall camp to see who will get the starting quarterback spot between Garrett Greene, Goose Crowder and true freshman Nicco Marchiol. All three have little-to-no experience, so it should be a clean slate, and may the best man win.
At receiver, leading pass-catcher Winston Wright transferred to Florida State, while No. 4 receiver Sean Ryan (Rutgers) and No. 5 Isaiah Esdale (Rice) also left via the transfer portal.
Still, Bryce Ford-Wheaton with his 42 catches for 575 yards and three touchdowns is back, and Sam James’ 42 grabs, 505 yards and five scores is also back. The coaching staff is high on Kaden Prather, who showed flashes as a true freshman last season.
Most knew running back Leddie Brown would try his hand at the NFL, but Tony Mathis proved he can be a top back with his performance at Kansas to end the regular season, finishing with over 100 yards. Clemson transfer Lyn-J Dixon adds an explosive punch.
But perhaps the biggest problem in 2021 that needs to be better in 2022 when the Mountaineers open at Pitt on Sept. 1 is the offensive line.
All five starters are back and should be a year better, but there is no hiding that when the offense struggled, it was when the line struggled.
With a new offensive coordinator, new starting quarterback and new starting running back, sprinkled with experienced wide receivers and offensive line, this may be what the doctor ordered for Neal Brown entering his fourth season at WVU.
With it will come patience, and for many fans, their patience is already up. With Pitt and Virginia Tech looming on the road in September, Brown may lose several more fans if it doesn’t go well.
But with as boring as the offensive was last season, a fresh start at least makes for an interesting off-season.