West Virginia will look a lot different in 2017.
The Mountaineers lost 14 starters from their 10-3 team in 2016, including eight from a defense that ranked third in the Big 12 in yards per play allowed. Dana Holgorsen, after receiving more security with a five-year contract extension after six seasons as head coach, hired 32-year-old Jake Spavital as his offensive coordinator and ceded play-calling duties to his young protégé, who served as his quarterbacks coach from 2011-12.
"You want to live. Want to live a long, happy, healthy life," Holgorsen joked in March. "It's just the right time, it makes sense."
Spavital will be scrutinized come fall, but good news arrived amid the roster-wide inexperience on Tuesday when Florida transfer quarterback Will Grier was officially declared eligible for the start of 2017, rather than the middle of the season.
It's been long-forecasted, but there are no hoops left to jump through anymore. The Mountaineers have their quarterback, and if West Virginia is going to exceed its expectations, one thing is clear: Spavital and Grier will have to carry them there.
Grier's last brush with college football relevance came all the way back in October 2015, when he helped then-first year Gators coach Jim McElwain start 6-0 at Florida. Grier returned home late from a 21-3 road win over Missouri that pushed the Gators into the top 10. Hours later, he learned his season was over: He was suspended for a year after testing positive for a banned substance.
Grier completed 66 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and three interceptions, but he didn't throw another pass in a Florida uniform. He later admitted he tested positive for Ligandrol, an over-the-counter substance he hadn't cleared with team trainers. Grier said he didn't know it was banned and appealed the ruling. He lost, and two months later, he left the program.
In April 2016, he landed in Morgantown as a transfer.
"They gave me a second chance, and I'm going to take advantage of it," Grier told reporters last week.
Grier doesn't give West Virginia loads of experience, but he does give the Mountaineers more experience than they'd otherwise have with two-year starter Skyler Howard gone. Grier spent last season sitting out a year as required when transferring, and the possibility existed that he'd have to serve out another half-season suspension to finish what was started in 2015. West Virginia asked for a waiver because of the year he had to sit as a transfer, and it was granted, meaning he'll be in the lineup as West Virginia's starting quarterback on Sept. 2 against Virginia Tech in Landover, Md.
A blue-chip recruit who threw 195 touchdown passes in his high school career in North Carolina, Grier looked like a promising building block for a rebuilding Florida program ... until he wasn't. Now, he fits that bill for the Mountaineers in a new conference, the Big 12, known for its excellence behind center.
Spavital has spent nearly every year of his coaching career in orbit alongside record-breaking passers. In 2009, he was a graduate assistant for a Houston team built around Case Keenum. He followed Holgorsen to Oklahoma State in 2010, where he helped install the Air Raid around Brandon Weeden and Justin Blackmon on the way to an 11-win season. He followed Holgorsen again to West Virginia in 2011 as Geno Smith's quarterback coach, winning a Big East title and an Orange Bowl. In 2013, he replaced Kliff Kingsbury at Texas A&M as Kevin Sumlin's co-offensive coordinator and quarterback coach. By Johnny Manziel's final game in an Aggies uniform, Spavital had been promoted to play-caller. Last season, he was Davis Webb's play-caller at Cal under Sonny Dykes.
Now, Grier is taking his turn under Spavital's tutelage. He's spent the past year learning Holgorsen's system, and after Tuesday's news, he can officially do what most have assumed he'd do since arriving on campus: Take over at quarterback in a new-look offense that must replace top receivers Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts.
Defensive coordinator Tony Gibson's quirky 3-3-5 defense gives West Virginia a perennial overachiever on the other side of the ball, and Spavital has two reliable runners who deserve more touches than Spavital's offenses traditionally give their backs. Last season, Cal's Bear Raid offense threw more passes than all but three FBS teams, despite missing a bowl game. Texas A&M was 16th and 25th in total pass attempts in Spavital's two full seasons as play-caller, though the Aggies ran the ball 505 times compared to 482 passes in 2015.
A similar ratio, if not one more tilted toward the running game, might be a better fit for this West Virginia team. Justin Crawford and Kennedy McCoy combined to average better than 6.7 yards per rush on 246 carries in 2016, offering bursts of experience among an otherwise green offensive depth chart.
West Virginia looks like an unlikely candidate to equal its success of 2016, but winning games consistently in the Big 12 almost always requires consistency at quarterback and the ability to score on any given snap.
Whether or not the Mountaineers measure up is up to Spavital and Grier, but Tuesday's news was a good start.