The college football season continues to draw closer.
West Virginia’s 2022 season opener in the Backyard Brawl is now just 100 days away.
Not only does this upcoming season bring on the return of the Backyard Brawl, but there will be plenty of other exciting and interesting storylines to follow, as well.
Here are 10 things we’re looking forward to seeing the most this fall:
10. West Virginia Natives in Key Roles
Neal Brown’s roster will be filled with Mountain State natives, and many of them will be playing key roles for the Mountaineers this year.
It’s hard to start anywhere besides the trenches when talking West Virginia natives.
Dante Stills is back for another season, as are Zach Frazier, Wyatt Milum, and Doug Nester.
Kicker Casey Legg is back for his redshirt senior season, where he’ll be called on to make big kicks once again.
Beyond those five West Virginians are four others who will have bigger roles this year, although those roles remain undefined.
Three are Morgantown High School graduates: Caden Biser, Nick Malone, and Preston Fox.
Fox showed out in the Gold-Blue Spring Game and made catch after catch to wow the Mountaineer faithful. He even earned a spot on the SportsCenter Top 10 for a one-handed grab and a got a scholarship from Neal Brown after the showcase.
Malone also made great strides and earned the coveted Nickolich Award, which is handed out annually to the team’s top walk-on. Biser is also expected to see his playing time increase this year as well.
Additionally, Cincinnati transfer Zeiqui Lawton will be called on to add depth on the defensive line.
9. Can the Defense Stay Strong Once Again?
Statistically, West Virginia’s defense has been one of the top units in the Big 12 each of the last two seasons.
In 2021, the WVU defense ranked No. 11 in the NCAA in red zone defense, No. 14 in first-down defense, and was among the 35 best groups in the country in third-down defense, fewest penalties and rushing defense.
Additionally, over the last three seasons, WVU has held opposing teams to fewer than 250 yards passing 26 times, fewer than 200 yards 16 times, and fewer than 150 yards nine times.
There has been some notable changeover in the secondary, but WVU safeties coach Dontae Wright is “excited” about the progression of his group, and the defensive backs as a whole. Charles Woods is back to lead WVU’s defensive backs, while a host of new additions add much intrigue to the unit ahead of the season.
Once again, the defensive line is expected to be one of West Virginia’s strongest units this year. Led by the aforementioned Stills (more on him in a bit), three of WVU’s top four sack-getters will be back with the Mountaineers, including Taijh Alston, who made a massive jump in his first full and injury-free season with the Mountaineers.
8. Key Additions From the Transfer Portal
Brown and his coaching staff have been busy adding players via the transfer portal.
Besides the signal-caller, arguably the most talked-about newcomer is transfer linebacker Lee Kpogba, who is set to play one of the most important positions on the defense, mike linebacker.
Two other key additions on the defensive side of the football are safety Hersey McLaurin and corner Marcis Floyd.
On offense, redshirt senior running back Lyn-J Dixon joins a running back room that is said to be full of home run hitters. Also joining this offense is tight end Brian Polendey.
7. Three Thursday Night Games
Once a staple of the WVU football schedule during the Big East days, the Mountaineers will play not one, not two, but three games on Thursday night this season.
West Virginia starts the year on a Thursday night, under the lights against its fiercest rival – a game that we’ll discuss later on in this article.
Three weeks after that game, the Mountaineers will defend the Black Diamond Trophy when they travel to Blacksburg, Virginia to take on Virginia Tech on Sept. 22.
Three weeks after that, the Baylor Bears will come to Morgantown for a Thursday night contest.
Interestingly enough, West Virginia’s Oct. 13 contest against Baylor will be the Mountaineers’ first home game played in primetime under Neal Brown.
6. Oklahoma’s Last Regular Season Stop in Morgantown
Keeping to looking at the schedule, two things will likely happen for the last time this year.
The first is Oklahoma’s last regular season stop in Morgantown. The other is West Virginia’s final regular season trip to Austin to play the Longhorns.
Both Texas and Oklahoma are headed to the SEC in the near future.
While the two programs’ exit date from the Big 12 is not set in stone, it is expected that they will no longer be in the conference past the 2023-2024 academic year. Other reports state they could both be gone after this upcoming year.
That means this will likely be the Sooners’ last trip to Milan Puskar Stadium, and WVU’s last trip to Darrell K. Royal Memorial Stadium, in the regular season as conference foes.
5. Defending the Black Diamond Trophy
For the first time since 2004, the Mountaineers will defend the Black Diamond Trophy.
In the first meeting between the two programs since 2017, West Virginia defeated No. 15 Virginia Tech 27-21 in Morgantown last fall.
This time around, the Hokies will host a WVU team aiming to hold on to the trophy.
West Virginia leads the all-time series 29-23-1 and looks to win back-to-back games against Virginia Tech for the first time since 2002-2003.
4. A New Starting Quarterback
One thing is certain heading into this season: the Mountaineers will have a new starting quarterback when Septe. 1 rolls around.
Three of the four quarterbacks in this competition were on the field during the Gold-Blue Spring Game last month. The newest addition to the quarterback battle is Georgia transfer JT Daniels.
Daniels has the most collegiate experience of the four, with redshirt sophomore Garrett Greene being the only other quarterback on the roster with multiple games played under his belt.
Redshirt freshman Will “Goose” Crowder appeared in one game last fall, and true freshman Nicco Marchiol had just wrapped up his high school football career when the Mountaineers played their final game last season.
The four quarterbacks not only have varying levels of experience, but also very different skill sets.
Crowder showed off some real arm talent and leadership skills in the Gold-Blue Spring Game, opening it with a four-play 75-yard touchdown drive. He added a touchdown pass later in the first half to a wide-open Sam James as he led the passing stats sheet on the hot Saturday.
Greene is more known for his feet, showing some true quickness during some spells in 2021. He didn’t have quite as much success as Crowder in the spring game but finished with 132 passing yards.
Marchiol is one of the most anticipated high school prospects in recent memory, and he shows a little bit of prowess for both running and passing. He threw for 75 yards and added a touchdown with his feet in the first half.
The presumptive favorite, however, is Daniels, the man with the most experience in college. The former five-star recruit was considered an elite arm talent out of high school and has already thrown for 32 Division I touchdowns, but injuries have prevented him from unleashing his full potential.
3. Graham Harrell’s Offense
The new OC showed off some of the capabilities of his offense during the spring game. And if the Gold-Blue game was any indication, there’s one thing to expect from the offense: shots downfield.
Harrell’s success both as a player and a coach is well-documented. He graduated from Texas Tech as one of the most prolific passers in college football history, throwing for 15,793 yards, 134 touchdowns and 34 interceptions for the Red Raiders under Mike Leach. Texas Tech went 2-1 in bowls with Harrell at quarterback and earned a bid to the 2009 Cotton Bowl.
As a coach, his offenses have been one of the best in the Pac-12 Conference each of the past two seasons with USC.
Can he bring that same success to the Mountaineers?
2. Dante Stills’ Final Season with the Mountaineers
A true son of the Mountaineers, Dante Stills announced his return to the program in January for one more run in the Old Gold and Blue.
The move could come as somewhat of a surprise to fans — or even Stills himself. A highly-touted prospect in the class of 2018, Stills originally planned to take his chance at the NFL after just three seasons. However, as the 2022 season approaches, he is getting ready for his fifth season as a Mountaineer.
Stills has been one of WVU’s top producers on defense over the last two seasons, picking up right where his brother Darius left off. The former Freshman All-American has led the Mountaineers in sacks over the previous two seasons, and the 19 he’s made in his career rank sixth all-time.
In 2021, Stills racked up a career-high 36 tackles and seven sacks while snagging his first interception. That was good enough to earn the academic senior All-Big 12 First Team honors.
When 2022 begins, Stills will sit seven sacks behind his dad, Gary, while wearing the same jersey number, No. 55. Could the former Polar Bear climb up to claim his father’s No. 2 spot in the record book?
1. The Return of the Backyard Brawl
The best rivalry in college football returns.
West Virginia will face off against its arch rival on the gridiron for the first time since 2011 when it takes the trip up I-79 to face Pitt on Sept. 1.
While Pittsburgh does have the advantage in the all-time series, the Mountaineers have won 15 of the last 22 meetings, dating back to 1990. WVU is also 3-2 against Pitt at Heinz Field since the Panthers started playing their home games there.
Even beyond the return of the heated rivalry, this year’s meeting has some interesting storylines, especially at the quarterback position. Pitt star Kenny Pickett was recently drafted by the Steelers, forcing the Panthers to turn to a transfer in Kedon Slovis to take the reins in 2022.
Ironically, Slovis and JT Daniels, WVU’s possible starter, have a history. Slovis was Daniels’s back-up at USC in 2019 under Graham Harrell. Daniels, unfortunately, suffered a season-ending injury, opening the job for Slovis, and kickstarting Daniels’s eventual move to Georgia.
Three years later, the former teammates will stand on rival sidelines to open the season, while Daniels has the support of Harrell’s offense.