The Backyard Brawl is here. Or, well, it’s just a few hours away. Regardless, one of the very best rivalries in college football has arrived, so what should Pitt expect from West Virginia?
It’s a team coached by fourth-year head coach Neal Brown, an offense led by new offensive Graham Harrell — who will call plays in 2022 — and a defense led by defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley.
There have been big changes for WVU since the end of the 2021 season, a 6-7 season capped by a loss to Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, but it’s not a team to take lightly either. The offensive and defensive lines are stout, experienced units, a former five-star quarterback has arrived to lead the offense and a new-look secondary is supplemented by a haul of transfer portal additions.
— Pitt Panthers (@Pitt_ATHLETICS) September 1, 2022
So, who is Pitt playing?
QB – J.T Daniels
RB – Tony Mathis
WR – Bryce Ford-Wheaton
WR – Sam James
WR – Kaden Prather
TE – Brian Polenday OR Mike O’Laughlin
LT – Wyatt Milum
LG – James Gmiter
C – Zach Frazier
RG – Doug Nester
RT – Brandon Yates OR Ja’Quay Hubbard
The WVU offensive line is back for another season together, much like Pitt’s is, and it’s led by an All-American in Frazier. Milum, a freshman All-American, is no slouch either.
However, it’s also a unit that wasn’t always sharp last season. There is talent along the line, sure, but Milum is in a new position. The right side of the line, with either Yates or Hubbard, will be the weak link. With an opening test against Pitt’s very, very deep pass rush, it will be a matchup that will make or break Daniels’ debut.
Speaking of Daniels, it’s his best chance since he was the opening day starter for USC in 2018 to come in and grab the starting job. After two seasons in which he largely backed up Stetson Bennett at Georgia, he’s on perhaps his last stop at the college level. He’s a quarterback who has the arm talent to stretch the field horizontally and vertically, and while he isn’t a real dual threat, he’s agile enough to move within the pocket.
WVU’s offensive success will likely hinge upon the offensive line’s growth since last season.
And with Leddie Brown off to fight for an NFL opportunity, Mathis is WVU’s top runner. Mathis played in nine games last season, racking up 312 yards on 72 carries, and he’s the leader of a running backs room that has very little experience. Justin Johnson Jr. and Markquan Rucker combined for 26 carries for 96 yards.
If there is a WVU rushing touchdown Thursday, it will be the first ever from WVU’s quarterback and running backs.
The wide receiving corps has a bit more experience.
Ford-Wheaton is a very talented wide receiver, replacing Winston Wright who left via the transfer portal for Miami, as WVU’s No. 1 wideout. Ford-Wheaton, a 6-foot-3, 225-pound North Carolina native, is perhaps the No. 1 threat to Pitt’s defense. He moves well for his size, lining up almost exclusively as an outside receiver, and he’s a threat to stretch the field and turn short tosses into big plays.
Prather, a highly rated recruit in the class of 2021, is another big, strong wide receiver who will shoulder a much larger load in 2022. And James, who has played in 38 games and made 20 starts, is another incredibly quick, shifty option in the wide receiver’s room. Both Ford-Wheaton and James received preseason All-Big 12 mentions.
It’s an offense that has a veteran quarterback with everything to prove, big, fast wide receivers and an experienced offensive line. And with Harrell now in place, there will be an emphasis to incorporate that air raid offense he’s known for.
DE – Taijh Alston
DE – Sean Martin
DT – Dante Stills
NG – Jordan Jefferson
Bandit – Jared Bartlett or Lanell Carr
Mike – Lee Kpogba
Will: Lance Dixon
CB: Charles Woods
CB: Rashad Ajayi OR Wesley McCormick
Spear: Davis Mallinger OR Jasir Cox
FS: Aubrey Burks
CAT: Marcis Floyd
There has been turnover all across WVU’s defense since the end of last season, but the constant has and will continue to be Stills.
A preseason All-American on the defensive line, Stills is the heart and soul of WVU’s defense. He racked up 36 tackles (29 solo), 15 tackles for loss, seven sacks, a forced fumble and an interception.
Mesidor isn’t back to supplement Stills on the defensive line, but Alston and Martin are experienced options who will man the defensive end spots this season.
There’s turnover in the linebacking corps with JUCO transfer Lee Kpogba stepping into the Mike linebacker slot. Former Penn State transfer Dixon emerged in the bowl game as a reliable option moving forward, and he’s taken strides during the offseason. And Bartlett, with 36 tackles (24 solo), a sack, a pass breakup and fumble recovery, is the most experienced returning linebacker.
Aside from Stills, Woods is the defender Pitt’s offense should look out for. Woods, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound cornerback who began his career at Illinois State, emerged as not just one of WVU’s best cornerbacks but one of its best defenders.
Woods recorded 31 tackles (22 solo), two tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups and two fumble recoveries. He’s back as a key cog in WVU’s new-look secondary, and Kedon Slovis will need to be aware of where Woods lines up.
Ajayi and McCormick have had varying degrees of experience at the college level, at Colorado State and James Madison, respectively. Ajayi played 37 games at CSU, and while McCormick redshirted in 2021, he played in 49 games at JMU over five seasons.
Woods, Ajayi and McCormick comprise a veteran unit — even if not WVU veterans — in the secondary, and it’s unit that will need to supplement a brand new safety group.
Cox, a North Dakota State transfer, excelled at the FCS level, and while Mallinger didn’t play a whole lot as a freshman last season, he’s challenging Cox for WVU’s Spear safety position.
Burks, a rising sophomore who suffered a season-ending injury against TCU last season, will serve as WVU’s free safety, and Murray State transfer Marcis Floyd will hold down the CAT safety slot.
K – Casey Legg
P – Kolton McGhee OR Oliver Straw
LS – Austin Brinkman
KR – Sam James
PR – Reese Smith
Legg connected on 19-of-23 field goal attempts and all 35 point-after attempts last season. Either McGhee or Straw will replace Tyler Sumpter at punter.
James and Smith will take their first reps as return men this season, with former WVU wideout Winston Wright exiting the program for Miami.