A quick Google search of “2017 preseason college football top 25” reveals several informal polls listing Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia Mountaineers.
There is the Austin American-Statesman’s preseason college football top 25, posted yesterday, which ranks West Virginia No. 19.
Late last month, The Sporting News had the Mountaineers ranked No. 20 in its preseason football poll. Earlier, top 25 polls issued by ESPN.com and Dr. Saturday from Yahoo! Sports also included West Virginia.
Of course, having a quarterback with Will Grier
’s reputation running the offense gets people’s attention, as does having a returning 1,000-yard rusher with a 7.3 yards-per-carry average such as Justin Crawford
Yet, what is going to ultimately determine where West Virginia finishes its 2017 season will not only rest on the shoulders of those two outstanding players, but also on their supporting cast in all three phases of play.
There are several players on offense who must step up and perform at a much higher level than they have in the past for West Virginia to have another successful season in 2017.
It’s the same deal with defense and special teams.
There are probably more unknowns on the defensive side of the ball, particularly at cornerback, where fourth-year WVU defensive strategist Tony Gibson must replace his two starters from a year ago, Rasul Douglas and Maurice Fleming.
Douglas, of course, will be vying for a starting job with the Philadelphia Eagles later this summer, so his loss will likely be felt the most.
But if you recall, West Virginia was in a similar spot last year when starting corner Daryl Worley left school a year early and was drafted by the Carolina Panthers.
Gibson didn’t scrap his defense or adjust the way he played, he just simply got the next guy ready.
Well, one of the next guys Gibson needs to get ready is senior Elijah Battle
, unquestionably the most seasoned corner West Virginia has returning in WVU’s defense.
Battle, listed as Douglas’ backup prior to last year’s Russell Athletic Bowl, played in 11 games last season, starting three opposite the All-American.
After spending two years at Dodge City (Kansas) Community College, where he earned honorable mention all-conference honors in 2015, the Linden, New Jersey, resident first made his presence felt last year in week four against Kansas State when he generated three solo tackles against the Wildcats.
“My favorite game was probably Kansas State because that’s the one I really got a lot of snaps,” Battle said recently. “I came in and played and it was a big game and we fought back and won the game. That was definitely a big game for me.”
He earned his first start a week later against Texas Tech, and a week after that against TCU, he was in on five stops in West Virginia’s 34-10 victory over the Horned Frogs.
His most productive game of the year came in the regular-season finale against Baylor when he was credited with seven tackles, six solo.
His junior season stat line included one pass breakup and a half sack in 233 defensive snaps.
Based on where Battle sits on the depth chart following spring practice, it’s safe to assume the number of defensive snaps he sees is going to increase dramatically during his senior campaign.
The question is, how much will his other numbers increase?
Battle and Syracuse transfer Corey Winfield
will likely battle it out at right corner, while Iowa Western Community College sophomore transfer Hakeem Bailey
and senior Mike Daniels Jr.
are the top two contenders at left corner.
Three of the four are seniors, and all four began their collegiate careers elsewhere, if that matters.
They will also be playing for a new coach, Doug Belk, who spent the last three seasons on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama serving as his right-hand man working with the cornerbacks.
“Everything is good with coach Belk,” Battle said. “He fits right in. He’s right at home.”
Battle said he is much more comfortable with Gibson’s defensive system now than he was last September when he first hit the field for the Mountaineers. Familiarity and comfort can’t replace natural talent, but it can impede it.
“When you’re more comfortable that allows you to play better,” Battle explained. “I understand the scheme and stuff better so I’m not thinking as much, I’m just reacting.”
Battle’s biggest lesson was becoming accustomed to playing a lot of man coverage, and learning that sometimes the only thing separating him, the football and the wide receiver he’s guarding from the end zone is air.
The faint of heart and the timid need not apply.
“We are going to play man here, so if you don’t like to play man this might not be the spot for you,” Battle said. “If not, you’re going to have to buckle down and man up and do what you’ve got to do.”
With preseason training camp just a few weeks away, Battle said he’s nearly ready to go.
“I could put on a few more pounds, but I want to keep getting faster, getting stronger and just keeping up on my craft,” he said.
And while Grier and Crawford are going to continue to command most of the attention when training camp begins, how much some of these supporting players such as Elijah Battle
can “improve their craft” this fall is going to go a long way in determining the type of season West Virginia is ultimately going to have in 2017.