About five years ago, Dana Holgorsen realized he had to swallow his pride.
Like every college football coach, Holgorsen would love nothing more than to sign a bevy of the top blue-chip high school players in the country and have them entrenched in his program for four or five years. But he gave up that dream. He realized that’s not who West Virginia is.
“I used to get nervous on Signing Day when we missed out on a couple of high school kids,” Holgorsen said. “Now I don’t care – it doesn’t bother me.”
Back in 2013, West Virginia suffered through a 4-8 season in its second year as a Big 12 member. That offseason, Holgorsen and his coaches took a hard, honest look at the program and asked the question – what went wrong? And what can we do better?
They realized that they didn’t have the depth necessary to compete with the top teams in the conference. Missing out on top-flight high school talent hurt. But they figured out that the answer to their problem could be throwing open the gate to transfers.
“We went 4-8, so we needed some more top-end talent,” Holgorsen said. “So we started doing a lot of transfers, and they’ve worked out. It’s just what our niche has been.
“We went better than 50 percent transfers (in our signing class) this last year. Of the 26 available (scholarships) we had, I think 14 or 15 of them ended up being transfers. They’ve just worked out for us.”
Indeed, since that 4-8 debacle four years ago, the Mountaineers have ascended to three straight bowl trips, including a 10-3 campaign in 2016. Scattered up and down the roster are players who made an exodus to the hills of Morgantown from other programs.
Offensive lineman Kyle Bosch transferred from Michigan. Defensive lineman Brenon Thrift came from Penn State. Cornerback Corey Winfield started for Syracuse for two seasons before joining West Virginia as a graduate transfer.
And those are just some of the four-year school refugees. The Mountaineers have also made a living signing a large number of junior college prospects.
“When you have transfers from juco, even though it’s not at the Division I level, it’s still college, you still get that experience,” said senior safety Kyzir White, who signed with his brother Ka’Raun White out of Lackawanna (Pa.) College before the 2016 season. “Just having that older, more mature guy compared to a freshman, it helps us out.”
It also means the coaches cast a rather wide net when it comes to recruiting. Sure, the Mountaineers have 38 players in their program who hail from the state of West Virginia. But that’s on a preseason roster with 124 total players, so the outsiders are actually in the majority.
That means a lot of zip codes are covered. West Virginia has plenty of players from neighboring states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, but also features guys from as far away as California, Montana and Texas.
“West Virginia is a little bit of a melting pot,” Holgorsen said. “We don’t get many high school kids from West Virginia, probably zero to two a year. So we’ve got to go everywhere, and part of what has enabled us to have a lot of success is to get some good transfers.”
But how do you get a kid to move 720 miles to a place he’s never before? For running back Justin Crawford, who traveled that distance to come from his hometown of Columbus, Georgia, he needed to feel a spark. He needed to sense that the coaches cared.
“It’s the fan base, the family-oriented coaches,” said Crawford, who transferred from Northwest Mississippi College. “They’re big on football, but they’re bigger on you.”
Besides, a college education – even that education that unfolds in the locker room -- isn’t relegated to linking up with a group that walks and talks exactly like you. It’s about broadening your horizons, White said.
“It’s cool, because you get different types of people,” he said. “You’re out of your element, and you just have to adjust to how a person is.”
Whether it’s White in the defensive secondary or Crawford in the backfield or new quarterback Will Grier – an import from the Florida Gators – West Virginia’s depth chart reads like a road map of America. Where do the Mountaineers come from? Everywhere but here.
But that doesn’t bother the coaches at all.
“Those guys are good players, and that’s the top-end talent that we need to be able to win this league,” Holgorsen said.