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Darius Stills 2.jpg

West Virginia University defensive lineman Darius Stills (center), the Big 12 Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, hopes to get the Mountaineers pointed in the right direction this season.

The goal from the first day of a trying preseason camp has been simple for the West Virginia University football team — to be the most improved team in the country.

How success in that endeavor will be measured and the steps the Mountaineers need to take to get there are multifaceted, to say the least.

Just in getting to the season opener at home against Eastern Kentucky on Sept. 12, West Virginia will have already cleared some sky-high hurdles. First came the mutual separation of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and the university in late July. An investigation stemming from allegations made by safety Kerry Martin Jr. accusing the coach of insensitive language toward other races and religions was the catalyst there.

Then, in the opening days of practices, the Mountaineers helplessly awaited a decision from the Big 12 Board of Directors as to whether or not the league would even play football this fall. That decision to play, which was handed down on Aug. 11, came hours after the Big Ten and Pac 12 conferences chose to postpone football to the spring.

An overhaul of the schedule soon followed, with the Mountaineers’ schedule now consisting of its opener against EKU and then nine conference games.

Since, with the adversity behind it, WVU has begun the process of evaluation and the pursuit of progress. For the first nine practices, that came in the form of split-squad work in an effort to socially distance as effectively as possible. Since, there have been full-squad scrimmages as the physicality of fall camp has ramped up.

“This camp is so much different than any camp I’ve ever been a part of so we’re just going week to week,” coach Neal Brown said.

For the Mountaineers to reach the lofty level of development that Brown has set as the standard, WVU will have to make significant strides in multiple areas, primarily resurrecting a running game that was among the country’s worst a year ago.

West Virginia ranked 128th out of 130 FBS teams in 2019 in rushing yards per game, averaging just 731/4, rushing for fewer than 1,000 yards as a team for the first time since 1968. It led to a largely one-dimensional offensive attack that struggled to score (116th in scoring offense at 20.6 points per game) and move the chains (109th in third-down-conversion percentage).

So far in camp, Brown has sung the praises of junior running back Alec Sinkfield and junior Leddie Brown, who started three games a year ago. Leddie Brown led the team with 367 yards rushing. Senior Lorenzo Dorr and redshirt freshman Tony Mathis Jr. are among those contending for carries as well.

But to get things rolling again on the ground, the Mountaineers will also have to replace graduated tackles Colton McKivitz, last season’s Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year, and Kolby Wickline. The starters returning on the interior — seniors Chase Behrndt and Michael Brown and sophomore James Gmiter — will have to continue to jell and improve.

Another position in which WVU will have to retool is at cornerback where Hakeem Bailey and Keith Washington graduated. Nicktroy Fortune, a returning sophomore who appeared in 11 games and started two last seasons, would seem to have the inside track on one of those spots. But Fortune has missed significant time in camp in dealing with the loss of his mother. True freshman Daryl Porter Jr. has impressed early as has junior Dreshun Miller.

And then there’s the issue of naming a starting quarterback, something Brown has yet to do. Senior Austin Kendall, a transfer from Oklahoma, started the first nine games a year ago, throwing for 1,989 yards and 12 touchdowns. Junior Jarret Doege replaced Kendall for the final three games and threw for 818 yards and seven touchdowns but more importantly, led the Mountaineers to a pair of wins at Kansas State and at TCU.

Those victories accounted for two of WVU’s three wins in the league and the strong finish left fans hopeful despite a 5-7 campaign overall.

But where are the Mountaineers now?

Neal Brown has been fairly consistent in his assessment so far, praising his team for the steps it has taken while reiterating that there is still a long way to go.

So, somewhere on the spectrum between where the program was at the beginning of Brown’s tenure and the consistent, championship-contending endgame the Mountaineers aspire to reach lies the current state of the West Virginia football team.

Just where on that spectrum? We begin to find out on Sept. 12.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, or follow him @RPritt on Twitter.

Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948, or follow him @RPritt on Twitter.