With the losses of nine defensive starters and star running back Wendell Smallwood, head coach Dana Holgorsen and the West Virginia University football team had work to do on Signing Day.
The Mountaineers won a few key battles for the signatures of players who could step into starting competitions right away, and may see the field as soon as the season opener on Sep. 3 against Missouri.
While the battles for playing time still remain to be fought and won, there’s one newcomer who looks more poised than anyone else to hold down a starting job on day one: Safety Kyzir White.
The brother of WVU receivers Kevin and Ka’Raun White, Kyzir White became one of the best junior college safeties in the country at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pennsylvania. West Virginia got his commitment in June but had to fend off a late charge from USC to ensure White would wear blue and gold this fall.
Now, Kyzir White, whom coaches have compared to the departed KJ Dillon – who embodied the versatile linebacker/safety hybrid "spur" position in Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 defense – appears to be ready to step directly into Dillon’s shoes.
"I’ve said numerous times that the spur position is the most important position to what we do defensively," Gibson said. "We had to get a guy that can come in and play right now, so we’re very excited about Kyzir and what he can bring to the table."
Kyzir White isn’t the only junior college star who could play immediately for the Mountaineers. West Virginia had already gotten commitments from talented high school running backs Kennedy McKoy and Martell Pettaway, but Wendell Smallwood declaring for the NFL Draft last month forced the Mountaineers to dip back into the market at that position.
They came up with National Junior College Offensive Player of the Year Justin Crawford, a 6-foot-1 tailback from Northwest Mississippi Community College.
After rushing for more than 1,600 yards and 16 touchdowns last season, Crawford’s recruitment was slow taking off. While he committed to West Virginia several days before Signing Day, a late challenge from future opponent Missouri ensured that the process would go down to the wire.
But Crawford is a Mountaineer, and his junior college tape has reminded coaches of Smallwood – all the more reason Crawford could share carries with senior Rushel Shell this fall.
"If you look at Crawford, he has a lot of Wendell qualities from our point of view," Holgorsen said. "He has great vision. He can hit the hole quick. He can make people miss, and he’s a good receiver as well."
Another recruitment that went down to the end was that of linebacker Brendan Ferns, a four-star prospect from Ohio who chose West Virginia over Penn State last week.
Ferns’ arrival couldn’t come at a better time. West Virginia’s linebacker corps was decimated by the departure of senior starters Nick Kwiatkoski, Jared Barber and Shaq Petteway, along with primary backup Edward Muldrow.
Rising junior Al-Rasheed Benton is the presumed starter at middle linebacker, along with fellow junior Xavier Preston at one of the outside spots. That leaves at least one starting role up for grabs, and Ferns will be in the race; Ferns has drawn comparison to Kwiatkoski for his size and athleticism.
"Ferns is probably more athletic than Kwiatkoski coming out of high school," Holgorsen said. "That guy does everything. The body type is very similar."
Those aren’t the only incoming Mountaineers who could be in line for immediate playing time. Tight end Trevon Wesco, a junior college teammate of Kyzir White’s, could see time right away, as well as punter Jonn Young and safeties Toyous Avery and Jovanni Stewart.
A wide-open cornerback race could also see new faces in key roles. Incoming junior college transfers Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels, along with Miami transfer Antonio Crawford and three freshmen, will all join a unit hurt by the losses of corners Terrell Chestnut, Daryl Worley and Ricky Rumph.
With spring practice still weeks away, the Mountaineers still have a while to wait to get their first looks at these players in blue and gold and begin to see how these critical competitions will shape up.