West Virginia finished the 2017 season with a 7-6 record and WVSports.com takes a look at seven surprise players from the team that exceeded expectations.
WR David Sills-After transferring to El Camino College for one season to play quarterback, junior wide receiver David Sills turned heads in his return to West Virginia and first full season as a wide receiver as he emerged as one of top wideouts in the nation. He entered the spring as the No. 2 y-receiver on the depth chart and developed a dynamic connection with quarterback Will Grier on the gridiron which helped him rack up 980 receiving yards on 60 catches and 18 touchdowns which tied for the most in the country with Memphis' Anthony Miller. With both Grier and Sills returning next season, the ceiling is high for both West Virginia’s offense and Sills as he will have the chance to expand his game and become more developed as a receiver in his second season under receivers coach Tyron Carrier.
“David thinks he’s the baddest dude on the field — he really does,” head coach Dana Holgorsen said. “He is one of the most motivated, hardest working kids I’ve been around. His football intelligence is really good and his work ethic is really good.”
WR Gary Jennings-Though Sills took the college football world by storm with his nation-leading 18 touchdown receptions, it was junior Gary Jennings who led West Virginia in receiving with 1,096 yards on 97 catches with one touchdown after gaining just 165 yards on 10 receptions as a sophomore last season. Jennings received heavy praise from his coaches and teammates throughout the offseason for his work ethic and progress as a receiver. The hard work paid off and that progress was seen throughout the season, most notably in the Virginia Tech, Delaware State, Baylor and Kansas State games where he amassed at least 115 receiving yards in each game including a career-high 189 against the Hokies.
“He works probably better than anybody I’ve seen do it even when I was playing,” receivers coach Tyron Carrier said. “He goes out there and works every day in practice. That’s what makes Will so comfortable to get the ball to him.”
LB Dylan Tonkery-West Virginia had its ups and downs on defense all season, but saw a lot of production from players who made their college football debuts. One of those players was redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkery, who bulked up and eventually made the switch from safety to linebacker when he arrived early on campus as a true freshman in 2016. After linebacker David Long went down with a meniscus injury prior to the team’s season-opener against Virginia Tech, the Bridgeport native stepped up in Long’s place and didn’t miss a beat after an impressive showing in spring and fall camps. After Long returned for the TCU game, Tonkery still remained an important part of Tony Gibson’s defense, totaling 44 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one fumble recovery.
“He’s getting better every day and I like where he’s at,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “I think he’s starting to catch on. He’s playing physical and a guy like Dylan who was a safety, moving down in the box, obviously gives us a lot more athleticism at that position.”
DB Kenny Robinson-True freshman Kenny Robinson is another player who made his college debut with the Mountaineers this season, starting the season at cornerback before moving to full safety in a defensive backfield shift when Toyous Avery was injured and Dravon Askew-Henry moved from free safety to bandit safety. Robinson had his moments, but still had significant impact on West Virginia’s defense, finishing his first season in the gold and blue with 46 tackles and three interceptions including two pick sixes.
“He plays with confidence,” safeties coach Matt Caponi said. “He’s young and gets yelled at a lot, but he doesn’t let that bother him, he almost takes it up to the next level. He understands why he’s out there and sometimes he has to make some plays and he does. He plays with a lot of confidence and doesn’t get rattled no matter the game or how big the situation is.”
LB David Long-Although redshirt sophomore linebacker David Long’s season may not be a surprise to many, Long impressed with the immediate impact he had on West Virginia’s defense since his return against TCU. After missing the first four games of the season with a meniscus injury, Long’s presence was felt everywhere on the field as he finished third on the team in tackles with 75 which included an 18-tackle performance against Oklahoma State. Long will lead a defense that will be missing some key playmakers, but will still carry promise with more than half of its starters returning.
“David, he is just a different player. He adds things that I can’t do. It is different having him out there,” senior linebacker Xavier Preston said. “Hat’s off to him.”
DL Ezekiel Rose-West Virginia’s defense faced many questions heading into this season and the defensive line was one of them with the unit losing all three of its starters from the year before. Rose’s raw athletic ability and high motor allowed him to see more playing time as the season progressed as he racked up 24 tackles, an interception, a fumble recovery and a team-leading five sacks. Rose and the defensive line look primed for a breakout season next year with the addition of four-star and in-state recruit Dante Stills and fellow defensive linemen returning in redshirt sophomore Adam Shuler, sophomore Reese Donahue and freshmen Darius Stills and Lamonte McDougle.
“Not only has he come in and prepared his body, prepared his mind, handled school, played on Division 1 level in front of the 65,000 people, but he's also standing out,” sophomore defensive end Reese Donahue said. “It's amazing how he's how he has progressed, it’s been pretty awesome.”
DL Lamonte McDougle-Speaking of McDougle, the true freshman is another player that emerged on the defensive line, but he made his presence known early on. McDougle started nine games at nose and became a force upfront for the Mountaineers throughout the season with his strength, size, use of hands and low pad level which helped him fight double teams. He amassed 23 tackles, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery on his way to earning ESPN Freshman All-American honors.
"He plays with very good leverage obviously and he uses his hands extremely well for a young guy," defensive line coach Bruce Tall said. "He sometimes won’t fit everybody’s parameters when you look for size, but he plays bigger than he is."