Via wvusports.com / John Antonik
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (August 18, 2020) – More split-squad work was on the menu today for the West Virginia University football team.
The first group got on the field a little after 9 a.m. and concluded work around 11:30 and the second group was off the practice field by 1 p.m.
Practices were conducted again today in shorts and shoulder pads.
Typically, the Mountaineers would be well into team work by practice No. 8.
“Things have been so different,” West Virginia coach Neal Brown said after today’s second practice. “In a normal year, I’d say we are a little bit behind. I know we’re behind physically, but mentally, we are a little ahead just because of all of the meeting time we’ve had and the OTAs definitely helped.”
He added, “Physically, in short bursts, we play fast, but where we’re having issues is when we have extended drives either offensively or defensively when we have to play four or five plays in a row, and it’s a struggle right now, and that’s just because we’re not where we need to be from a conditioning standpoint,” he said.
Brown’s practice standouts included wide receiver Bryce Ford-Wheaton, tight end Mike O’Laughlin and defensive lineman Quay Mays among the first group, and wide receiver T.J. Simmons, true freshman quarterback Garrett Greene and true freshman cornerback Daryl Porter Jr. with the second group.
This is the second time Brown has specifically cited Porter’s work. He’s a 5-foot-11, 179-pounder from American Heritage High in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
“Daryl Porter Jr. was sharp,” Brown said. “He’s going against Sam James every day, and he’s getting better. He really competed hard today.”
Brown said O’Laughlin came up with a couple of big catches during some of the end-of-games scenarios the team worked on, and he noted that Greene, a true freshman from Tallahassee, made “some big-time throws.”
Additionally, Brown mentioned the play of redshirt freshman linebacker Jared Bartlett.
“Jared Bartlett was tough to block. He really showed up with great energy and ran around. That’s a guy that we need to take a big step here,” Brown said.
The coach said sophomore cornerback Nicktroy Fortune continues to remain at home with his family following the death of his mother, Iliana, last week.
“We are kind of leaving that open ended and let him spend as much time with his family as he needs right now,” Brown said.
The coach also indicated he will provide an update on the transfers the Mountaineers have recently added to the program during his next scheduled video conference with media on Wednesday afternoon.
The two squads will have another walk-through this afternoon and will continue practice work on Wednesday. The schedule calls for another recovery day on Thursday.
* Today was the first opportunity I’ve gotten to see Sam James this fall because of the split-group workouts, and he certainly looks like a Big 12 wide receiver to me. Not only is he the fastest player on the team, but he’s also a little bit bigger and stronger than he was last year.
“He’s playing with a lot of confidence, and he’s playing at a high level,” Brown said of James. “Our expectations for him, of course, are sky high. I think he’s special. I think he’s done everything he’s needed to do to put himself in a position to have a big year. He’s going to be a key player for us. I think he’s more of a complete player, and I’m excited to see what he can do. He’s put on some weight, he’s added strength and I think his ball skills have improved.”
Consistency was the thing James lacked last season as a redshirt freshman. The bulk of his 69 receptions came in just a handful of games.
“People forget he was just a freshman and being a go-to guy on a Big 12 team as a redshirt freshman is tough,” Brown explained. “A lot of times those redshirt freshman make those same mistakes, but they’re not in the spotlight as much as he was last year, and that’s only going to make him better. He’s going to be one of our go-to guys this year, and I think you will continue to see him play at a high level. I don’t think he will have as much up and down and a lot of that is maturity and understanding what the competition is.”
It’s obvious after eight practices that wide receiver is the deepest position on the football team. Bryce Ford-Wheaton, at 6-feet-3, 218 pounds, physically resembles Jerry Porter to me, although he’s got a ways to go to duplicate Porter’s performance on the field.
Former Temple transfer Sean Ryan has Shawn Foreman-sized hands, and T.J. Simmons also looks the part running around out there.
Some of the younger guys such as Ali Jennings and Winston Wright Jr. appear to be performing well, as is true freshman Sam Brown from Savannah, Georgia.
When Neal Brown first arrived at West Virginia in 2019 the wide receiver position was not in good shape and his staff has done a tremendous job recruiting that area since then.
The split-group work has also really benefited the wide receivers by getting them a lot of pass catching reps they wouldn’t have gotten under normal circumstances.
“A lot of balls are being thrown to them in live situations,” Brown said. “Without a doubt, I think we’ve got several that can play and if they continue to not only catch balls but also block on the perimeter … that’s something that we’ve got to spend more time on. They’ve got to block or else we can’t play multiple wide receivers in the game.
“We didn’t do a very good job of that yesterday but we were a little bit better today and that’s something we’ve got to continue to work on,” Brown added.
* In terms of straight-line speed I would have to say James is probably the fastest player on the team, followed by Ford-Wheaton and Wright Jr.
I am told one guy you don’t want to sleep on in a foot race is quarterback Garrett Greene. He is adding tremendous athleticism to the quarterback room this year.
* Assistant to the head coach Billy Legg has now taken over the microphone that Brown used to wear during practices to shout out instructions. Billy said he only uses it to announce period changes.
“I’m not real big on it,” he laughed.
Legg may want to hand the mic over to high-energy inside linebackers coach Jeff Koonz, who is already struggling to maintain his voice just eight days into practice.
* It was another San Diego-like day in Morgantown this morning with sunny skies and comfortable temperatures, which is great for the players but not so great for the strength and conditioning coaches looking for a little bit of heat to help the guys work on their conditioning.
* Brown continues to mix in some special teams work during both split-squad practices. It looked to me like the ball was coming off senior Evan Staley’s foot pretty well this morning. Staley made 11 of his 17 field goal attempts last year with a long of 44 yards after a sophomore season in 2018 in which he converted 16 of 20 with a long of 49 yards.
Charleston’s Casey Legg came in to bang a big 51-yarder in West Virginia’s upset road victory at No. 24 Kansas State last year, giving the Mountaineers two kickers with big-game experience.
“We have been doing a lot of individual and group stuff and working on fundamentals special teams wise,” Brown said. “When we get the whole team together is when we will start implementing a lot of our schemes, but I think we’re in a good spot.
“I think the guys understand what we’re doing schematically, our fundamentals are much improved and we’ve got more athletic bodies to play on those teams this year.”
* It appears nearly all of the panels for the new South end zone scoreboard are in place. It’s my understanding that the heavy lifting begins now with the wiring and infrastructure work. Some of the parts were delayed because of the pandemic, but it is expected to be operational by the end of the month.
* Brown continues to come up with some team competitions at the end of practice to make things interesting. Today, it was the Big-Guy Quarterback Challenge.
In the first group, Noah Drummond, a 6-foot, 290-pound sophomore offensive lineman from Bridgeport, was paired against Quay Mays, a 6-foot-1, 300-pounder from Bradenton, Florida.
Drummond was able to get the walk-off win when his pass sailed through the net.
Following the second practice, sophomore defensive lineman Jordan Jefferson, a 6-foot-2, 312-pounder from Navarre, Florida, was matched up against 6-foot-3, 315-pound sophomore offensive lineman Blaine Scott from West Portsmouth, Ohio.
Neither player was able to get it into the net, so Brown went to the bullpen to bring out team videographer Sean Merinar, a former standout left tackle on the 1998 Sherrard Junior High team in Marshall County.
Merinar was able to hit the top of the net to save the entire team from having to do up-downs.
“Everybody was a winner today,” Brown laughed.