Why West Virginia could have college football's top offense in 2018

When Dana Holgorsen bolted Oklahoma State for West Virginia, he left behind the foundation of what would become the nation’s best offense in 2011.

Seven years later, armed with one of college football’s top returning quarterbacks in Will Grier and a host of dynamic playmakers, Holgorsen once again has the foundation of a unit that could lay claim as the country’s top offensive attack.

“We’re holding ourselves to a high standard because we know how good we can be,” Grier told ESPN.com Monday. “And I think we can be pretty good.”

Those standards begin with Grier, who, after overcoming a messy transfer from Florida, re-emerged last season with a breakout campaign for the Mountaineers, who will finish up spring practice Saturday with their spring game.

Until he suffered a season-ending broken finger injury last November, Grier was second nationally with 34 touchdown throws and third with 3,490 passing yards.

As Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson and Mason Rudolph have moved on to the NFL, Grier has risen into the pantheon of premier college quarterbacks.

"He looks like a fifth-year quarterback to me," Holgorsen told reporters last week. "It's his second year in this system, and he's much more comfortable. His timing with the guys is as good as I've seen. So from a quarterback perspective, it's as good as anyone in the country."

The same could be said of West Virginia's receiving corps.

Leading the way is David Sills V, who led the country with 18 touchdown receptions last season on the way to becoming a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver.

Famously once the 13-year-old quarterback whom Lane Kiffin offered a scholarship to USC after watching only one highlight clip, Sills has blossomed since giving up throwing passes a year ago and putting his whole focus on catching them instead.

Yet, even as prolific as Sills was, he didn’t even lead his own team in receptions or yards last season. Complementing Sills’ downfield prowess, fellow rising senior Gary Jennings provided Grier with a go-to possession outlet and quietly topped the Big 12 with 97 receptions to go along with 1,096 yards.

“You’ve got a lot of yards returning there,” said offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “They have a shot, when it’s all said and done, at being talked about as one of the better groups there.”

A pair of intriguing transfers could bolster that case.

Having sat out last year, former Alabama receiver T.J. Simmons is set to join the rotation, where he could provide the passing game with another dimension. Since arriving in Morgantown, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound sophomore has turned heads, especially with his physicality on jump balls.

“I love his mentality,” Grier said. “It’s been fun watching him. I’m excited to see what he can do.”

The Mountaineers are also excited to see what element former Miami tight end Jovani Haskins can bring, as well.

Since Holgorsen took over, the Mountaineers have largely gone without using tight ends in the offense. That included last season, which opened opportunities for opposing defenses to tee off on Grier while diminishing the potential of West Virginia's running game.

This season, Spavital could have the antidote to both by utilizing the combination of Haskins and Trevon Wesco. While Wesco is a block-first tight end, Haskins, at 6-4, 240 pounds, has the speed to flex out in the mold of 2017 Mackey Award winner Mark Andrews of Oklahoma -- all of which figures to give the Mountaineers a whole spread of looks they didn't have in the arsenal last year.

“There aren’t many guys with his size and stature [who] can run like he can,” Spavital said of Haskins. “That’s where I think you can start creating mismatches.”

Of course, to maximize its mismatch potential, West Virginia will have to improve upon a ground game that ranked just fifth in the Big 12 in yards per carry last season and delivered only four rushes of 30 yards or more (Oklahoma, by comparison, produced 17).

While the interior of the line remains a work in progress this spring, the Mountaineers have a pair of proven cogs coming back at the bookends in Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz. Spavital is also bullish on a three-prong running back rotation that will feature zone runner Kennedy McKoy, power back Martell Pettaway and diminutive big-play freshman Alec Sinkfield, who, according to Spavital, has been “ripping it up” this spring.

“We have a lot of guys [who] can make plays,” Grier said.

With so many playmakers around Grier, the Mountaineers have the pieces to put up numbers with anyone.

The pressing question for them, though, is whether they will execute well enough to deliver the wins to contend in the Big 12.

Until Grier’s finger injury, West Virginia's offense was seventh nationally in yards per game.

But the Mountaineers also ranked all the way down at 101st in third-down-conversions, 94th in turnovers and 37th in offensive penalties.

“We were very explosive, but we were also terrible on crucial downs, turnovers and penalties,” Spavital said.

For that reason, improving in efficiency has been the overriding emphasis in Morgantown this spring.

All of which comes back to Grier.

“He’s got that playmaking gene in him where he wants to extend plays like Johnny Manziel where he could easily just make the routine play,” Spavital said. “You don’t want to handcuff him too much because he can make spectacular plays. But we’re challenging him to know when to make the routine one.”

And if Grier can hone the right combination of chain-moving checkdowns and touchdown-making heaves? The Mountaineers could finally shoot their way to the top of the Big 12 -- thanks to a loaded offense and one of the game's proven gunslingers.

“We still have a long way to go,” Grier said. “But it’s not a stretch to say we can be the best in the country -- because that’s what we’re striving to be.”