West Virginia counting on JT Daniels, revamped offense to turn close losses into wins

It didn’t happen in the flash of an epiphany. Instead, it transpired bit by bit, a succession of frustrating performances, until Neal Brown arrived at the realization.

His West Virginia offenses had ranked 119th, 85th and 92nd nationally in yards per play over three seasons, and they never climbed higher than 82nd in scoring, irrefutable evidence that Brown needed to prioritize his head coaching duties and delegate the play calling.

Within days of an 18-6 loss to Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, Brown brought Graham Harrell aboard and handed over the offense.

“The role of head coach in college football has changed dramatically over the last two years,” Brown told The Athletic. “I wasn’t having enough time to prepare myself to call games like I had in the past because of NIL or other things tied into retaining players. I think our plays were good and our plans were solid, but I also felt like I was failing the offensive staff because we weren’t getting into the game plan early enough in the week.”

After 14 consecutive seasons of calling plays as a coordinator and head coach, Brown stepped back this spring to watch the offense be reshaped by Harrell, who is coming off a three-year stint at USC.

“Graham has great energy. He’s confident but not arrogant,” Brown said. “And I’m already a better head coach because I’m in a better head space. I’ve got more time to invest in relationships.”

It was obvious West Virginia was headed for a rebuild when Brown replaced Dana Holgorsen in 2019 — and only one inherited player has been drafted. Three years later, fans are impatient for the turnaround to take hold. Brown’s 17-18 record includes seven gut-punch losses in which the game came down to the final possession.

Such losses haunted last season’s 6-7 team. Four turnovers made the difference in a 30-24 setback at Maryland, and then the Mountaineers lost consecutive heartbreakers to No. 4 Oklahoma and Texas Tech on walk-off field goals.

“A lot of close losses,” Brown said. “But the reality is we didn’t win those games, and we’ve got to learn how to close them out.”

The remedy is souping up the offense. That could involve transfer quarterback JT Daniels taking more downfield shots, or Harrell devising ways to improve West Virginia’s red zone touchdown percentage, which has sputtered in the bottom half of the Big 12 under Brown.

Author: Lucy Green