On a sun-splashed afternoon with ideal temperatures (in the low 70s) the West Virginia University Mountaineer football spring practice road show traveled to the Advocare Sports Performance Center at The Greenbrier in White Sulfur Springs, West Virginia. At the same complex used by the NFL’s New Orleans Saints for their pre-season preparations approximately 1,500 fans turned out to watch the second off-campus WVU football spring practice of 2015, following last weekend’s visit by the Mountaineers to Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W. Va.
Prior to the practice getting underway Head Coach Dana Holgorsen addressed members of the media. Holgorsen noted that junior Skylar Howard was the “clear cut No. 1” at quarterback and that his pursuers were “not even close” to challenging the Fort Worth, TX native and Riverside Community College product as the starter. Holgorsen noted that, “The kids [teammates] believe in him. The coaches believe in him.”
Holgerson also noted that junior Daikiel Shorts, who was moved to the outside receiver position earlier this spring, and redshirt sophomore Shelton Gibson had also made great strides as the spring practice season has progressed, calling both, “clear-cut No. 1’s at outside receiver.”
Holgorsen also noted that senior Jordan Thompson had improved in the slot and that the timing between the player often referred to as “Squirt” and Howard had gotten much better. Wendell Smallwood, who was injured and did not participate in the scrimmage, was also praised by the Mountaineer mentor for his solid work this spring at inside receiver
Holgorsen also made mention the solid week put forth by Russell Haughton-James, vying for one of the offensive lineman positions, and the flexibility the redshirt senior provides by being insertable at any position up front but center.
When asked whether the defense might carry the team this fall, Holgorsen enthusiastically said, “I would certainly be OK with that. If we’re shutting people out it takes pressure off of me to call perfect plays.” The head coach also acknowledged the benefit of coaching staff continuity on the defensive side of the ball. Describing the defense in general, Holgorsen said, “Those guys know what to do. They’re flying around. They’re making plays.”
Holgorsen also stated that there have been no serious injuries during the spring thus far.
Following the media session, activities began with position drills, followed by an approximately 90-minute scrimmage. Yodney Cajuste (broken finger), who has drawn praise from the coaches for his progress this spring at the critical left tackle position, did not participate.
Leading the No. 1 offense, it was clear to most observers on the afternoon that Howard deserved the “clear-cut No. 1” reference from his head coach. Howard exhibited nice touch on intermediate and deep throws, connecting with Thompson on a strike from short range in the back of the end zone for a touchdown and with Thompson on another long touchdown strike. Howard exhibited a much broader grasp of the offense and in making read progressions in passing situations.
With the No. 1 and No. 2 offenses alternating for most of the scrimmage the gap between Howard and redshirt freshman William Crest was apparent. While Crest did make some nice throws, including a long touchdown strike to fellow redshirt freshman Ricky Rogers and another to redshirt junior Devante Mathis, several of his pass attempts were to phantom receivers in the middle of nowehere.
At running back, Rushel Shell ran with the first team but did not distinguish himself, despite Holgrosen stating before the scrimmage that he hoped he would do just that. Donte Thomas-Williams had a few impressive rushes, including one long touchdown run, but was injured (which did not appear to be serious) during the scrimmage and did not return to action. Huntington’s Elijah Wellman had a short TD run and Jacky Marcellus’ move to tailback appears to be a permanent one, although it was apparent that the diminutive redshirt sophomore is still learning the nuances of the position and appeared tentative, at times, when carrying the ball.
Up front, most of the first team offensive line work went to Tyler Orlosky at center, Adam Pankey at left guard, Russell Haughton-James at left tackle, Tony Matteo at right guard and Marquis Lucas at right tackle. Second O-line work went to Sylvester Townes, Jonathan Haynes, Stone Underwood, Grant Lingafelter, Marcell Lazard, Amanii Brown and Kyle Bosch.
Second team wide receivers included Mathis and Lamar Parker, who had a nice gain on a toss sweep from Crest, and Rogers.
On defense, the first team defensive line consisted of Kyle Rose (reinstated after a run-in with Morgantown Police earlier this spring), Christian Brown and Eric Kinsey and the second D-line included appearances by Darrien Howard, Jon Lewis and Larry Jefferson, the junior college transfer from Itawamba Community College.
Seeing Jared Barber back on the field at linebacker is a sight that pleased every Mountaineer fan in attendance.
The veteran first team defensive secondary included Karl Joseph, Dravon Henry, Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut.
The defense made two four-down goal line stands, which had the defensive coaching staff fired up along the sideline.
Little special teams work took place, although Josh Lambert was perfect on the PATs he attempted.
Turnovers were few and far between, which remains a concern given the Mountaineers’ inability to create takeaways last season – a point of emphasis this spring for Tony Gibson’s charges.
All in all it was a pleasant day for southern West Virginia University football fans to get a live look at the Mountaineers in a world class resort setting amidst the splendor of the mountains of West Virginia.
The Mountaineers will conclude spring practice with next Saturday’s annual Gold-Blue game at Milan Puskar Stadium. Game time is at 1:00 p.m. Tickets are $10.00 and all proceeds, as in previous years, will benefit WVU Children’s Hospital.
Photo credit The Greenbrier (www.greenbrier.com/scrimmagesslide)