MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The transfer portal giveth, and the portal taketh away.
Neal Brown has learned this through experience in his last four seasons at the helm of West Virginia’s football program.
Some of WVU’s top contributors in his tenure have come from the portal. At the same time, many top players have left the program for pastures they perceive as greener.
Brown concluded after the 2022 season that the latter group had a greater impact on the results of the roller-coaster campaign.
“The portal hurt us last year and more so than I probably realized,” Brown said. “I probably started realizing it once we got into fall camp, but it hurt us. We lost, what, four or five starters in the portal, and I’m not making excuses, it just hurt more.”
This offseason, Brown sought to change that trend. He compared the portal market to a bank account (“You hope your deposits are more than your withdrawals”) and made a more aggressive push to rack up those deposits to his roster.
“What you want to do is you want to bring in a higher number of starter-level players than you’re losing, and I believe we’ve done that,” Brown said.
Here’s what the coach had to say about the players his team has brought on board:
Devin Carter, Senior WR, NC State
West Virginia needed some pass-catchers and with the help of last season’s leading receiver, they landed one of the top receiving portal targets out of the ACC in Carter.
With the departure of Sam James and Bryce Ford-Wheaton (who, coincidentally, faced Carter in high school and claimed some credit for his recruitment to WVU), West Virginia direly needed a top wide receiver to step in and help the offense.
“We really felt that we needed to add a one, and we beat a lot of really good people on him,” Brown said.
Carter was a regular contributor at NC State. He was a top-3 receiver for the Wolfpack in three straight seasons, racking up at least 450 yards each campaign.
Brown expects those numbers to spike when Carter takes the field wearing Old Gold and Blue.
“What we believe is that we can even make him more productive than what he’s been,” he added. “I think you’ll see his numbers, if he stays healthy, be quite a bit higher than what they were at NC State.”
Ja’Shaun Poke, Senior WR, Kent State
The Mountaineers added another wide receiver in Ja’Shaun Poke, a three-star transfer portal product that seemed to especially excite Brown. Poke, a 5-foot-10 native of Georgia, will play as an interior receiver according to the head coach after racking up 362 receiving yards and a score in 2022 during an injury-shortened season.
Poke will provide more than just offense, though, as Brown noted he expects a major boost on special teams.
“We really felt like we needed to add a returner in this cycle in the portal, and if you look at it from a kickoff return standpoint, which was a weakness for us a year ago, I think he’s got a chance to really improve us there,” Brown said.
Kole Taylor, Junior TE, LSU
WVU also needed some reinforcements in the tight end room, so they called on Taylor, a former three-star prospect in the 2020 class out of Colorado.
Taylor played in 32 games for LSU, and now that he’s in Morgantown, Brown called him a “high priority as a pass-receiving tight end.” Brown said that the Mountaineers have tried to utilize that position more in their offense in recent years, and he said the 6-foot-7 tight end will help the passing attack.
“He’s going to give us that dimension and…that’s something that we really pin-pointed,” Brown said.
Davoan Hawkins, Senior DL, Tennessee State
Brown noted on National Signing Day that he would never turn down another big body on the defensive line. At a listed weight of 286 pounds, Hawkins fits that bill.
Hawkins comes to Morgantown after a stint at Tennessee State where he recorded 29 tackles and a pair of sacks. Before that, he was at Kentucky, which made him an easy pick for Brown as he leveraged his connections to bring him to WVU.
“I think he’s going to be a really good fit there,” Brown said.
Fatorma Mulbah, Junior DL, Penn State
Mulbah, a 270-pound defensive lineman from Harrisburg, Pa., is another big man joining the Mountaineer defensive line. He didn’t see a lot of time on defense, playing in 13 games for the Nittany Lions in 2022 mostly on special teams.
“He’s going to add quality,” Brown said.
Montre Miller, Redshirt Senior CB, Kent State
West Virginia nearly finished at the bottom of the Big 12’s passing defense stats, allowing 262.3 yards through the air each game. That’s why Brown and his staff identified Miller, another Kent State product, as a major priority in the transfer portal.
Brown diagnosed some of WVU’s defensive woes as a lack of top-end speed. Miller, he said, is a quality remedy for that problem.
“He can really run,” Brown said. “We’ve got all these different metrics that you use when you’re able to track guys as you go into the portal and he was one of the fastest corners available so he’s going to compete for playing time right away.”
Michael Hayes, Redshirt Junior K, Georgia State
Brown and his staff were left with a big hole on special teams after the departure of kicker Casey Legg. WVU called on Michael Hayes, who proved himself as one of the top kickers in the Sun Belt during his three seasons at Georgia State.
“We were looking for a guy that was proven,” Brown said. “We bring in Michael Hayes from Georgia State, he did [punts, kickoffs and field goals] there.”
Brown added that punter Oliver Straw, who earned multiple weekly honors from the Big 12 in his freshman season, will remain in his role as the punter in 2023. Hayes will instead compete for the kickoff and field goal duties.
“He’s going to add some distance to our field goals and he had a high touchback percentage last year at kickoff,” Brown said.