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Freshman set the tone in ‘Trust the climb’ Movement against NC State

Last week, Neal Brown and the rest of the Mountaineer coaching staff preached energy. They told the media they were looking for a group of guys who had the physicality and courage they were looking for. It was announced at that time that true freshman Ali Jennings and Winston Wright among others, would recieve playing time while searching for a spark on offense, but nobody could have imagined the impact the many new freshman would have on the team on both sides of the ball, including opening up the running game for the first time this season.

On the offense, freshman receivers seemed to feed off of each others energy, which was set by redshirt freshman Sam James. In the long line of great Mountaineer receivers, including Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey, Kevin White and Chris Henry, James was able to find a way to set a record in just his third start in a Mountaineer uniform. Per 247 Sports Chris Anderson, James became the first Mountaineer freshman in program history with 150+ yards and a touchdown in the same game. He did this on nine receptions and is proving to be the top target for Austin Kendall, and a player that will be making plays for a long time in Morgantown.

Redshirt freshman Sam James scores the first touchdown of the day for the Mountaineers
Photo Courtesy: WVU Athletics

While James had the spotlight for the Mountaineers, it’s hard to overlook the other freshman that contributed in big ways for the Mountaineers offense unit including two true freshman receivers in Winston Wright and Ali Jennings. Brown indicated last week they would get playing time against NC State but with the game suspension for junior reciever Tevin Bush, their role expanded and they stepped in as play makers, both contributing with solid games. The Richmond, Virginia native Jennings had three receptions for 28 yards including a 4th quarter touchdown, the first of his young career, while Savannah, Georgia native Wright had four receptions of his own, for 13 yards.

On the defensive side of the ball, redshirt freshman Nicktroy Fortune and Kerry Martin continued to play well while recieving meaningful snaps, but the real surprise was fellow true freshman Tykee Smith. Smith had been used off the bench during the first two games, but got a chance to perform during meaningful snaps when he replaced Josh Norwood at safety after an early ejection in the first quarter kept Norwood out of the game. Smith had two solo tackles in the afternoon, and played all over the field showing off his physically on multiple occasions, while contributing a big pass breakup late in the game.

The performance by Smith impressed former Mountaineer cornerback Terrell Chestnut on Twitter, and was given a shoutout.

The biggest disappointment up until this point for the Mountaineers has been the running game, and rightfully so. The Mountaineers came into Saturday’s game last in the nation in rushing offense, and were desperate for a spark to get the senior running backs moving. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning stated he was looking for his guys to be a bit more tough, and would continue to preach this during practice. With an injury and illness to two starting offensive linemen in Josh Sills and Michael Brown, it looked like it would be more of the same struggles. Instead, redshirt freshman Briason Mays and James Gmiter stepped in with the starters, and contributed in the best offensive game for the Mountaineers, including 173 rushing yards for the team, a far cry from the production they had gotten in the last two weeks. 

With a flurry of young production being showcased for the Mountaineers, it sets the stage for the next few years, and gives fans a chance to see what the future of the program may look like. Given the circumstances, this performance against NC State may be one of the best responses to a big loss in recent memory, much aided by young production.

Cover Photo Credit: Ethan Hyman- The News and Observer

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