By Cam Huffman
Although basketball has been on the minds of most Mountaineer fans this month, football season has officially begun for the folks at the Milan Puskar Center … spring football, at least.
West Virginia’s football squad officially began spring drills on March 14, and in his first meeting with the press a week later, head coach Dana Holgorsen said he’s been pleased with what he has seen to this point.
“It’s going good,” he stated simply about the progress thus far.
The to-do list for the 15 practices this spring, though, is about as lengthy as the grocery list for the Duggar family.
“We’re so early in the process right now, I don’t even know where to begin,” said Holgorsen. “I think we had really good strength and conditioning for eight weeks. The two months that those guys focused on that, I was very pleased.
“We’re kind of finding our way football wise right now, so I have no idea what the identity of this team is. I have no idea what we’re going to be able to do well.”
Every position is wide open, the coach said, with nothing set in stone. Some new schemes are being employed on both offense and special teams, and Holgorsen said those changes and the uncertainty at a number of positions adds some excitement to the spring.
On defense, the scheme is basically the same under fourth-year defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, but the defensive line is basically all new, as are the corners, leaving plenty of intrigue on that side of the ball, as well.
“I like where we’re at with what we do, but are we going to have corners that can cover and are we going to be able to blitz as much as we’ve wanted to in the past?” Holgorsen asked. “You go out and you practice hard and you see what you’re made of and what you do well. You build your team around that.”
Building a team starts with healthy bodies, and WVU is still working toward that end. Brendan Ferns, Dravon Askew-Henry, Yodny Cajuste and Ka’Raun White are all slowly working their way back from injuries suffered last season, and Holgorsen said that process could take some time.
“(Askew-Henry, a junior free safety) is probably a little more behind than (redshirt freshman linebacker) Ferns, because Ferns is practicing,” said Holgorsen. “Yodny (a junior offensive lineman), we just tested his knee, and he’s progressing. He’s not quite ready, but I feel like we’ll get him in a couple of weeks. Dravon is a little slower, maybe on purpose because we need him to go against Virginia Tech (in the season opener on Sept. 2 at FedExField in Landover, Md.).”
As far as the players who are on the field, everything, at least offensively, starts with the quarterback position, where Florida transfer Will Grier is expected to take over for Skyler Howard.
“I see some frustration, because he is a perfectionist and he wants everything to be easy and he wants everything to look great,” said Holgorsen of the junior signal caller. “That is not reality. There are going to be growing pains for any quarterback at any level.
“He is a really, really bright kid. He lives in the film room. He is there all the time. He asks a lot of questions. Having (offensive coordinator Jake Spavital) here has been really good, because Jake spends three hours on Saturdays with him if he needs to.
“He is a coach’s kid. He works hard. He wants things to look good. The ball looks really good coming out of his hands, and he is an athletic guy, as well.”
The major question for Grier is if he will be eligible for that opener against Virginia Tech. WVU is still waiting on an official ruling from the NCAA, after Grier set out the 2016 season on a suspension for using an illegal substance while with the Gators. If he’s not ruled eligible to begin the season, the job will likely fall into the hands of sophomore Chris Chugunov.
Although he’d certainly like to have all of the bullets in his gun, Holgorsen said his team would still be ready to compete even without Grier.
“Chugs looks really good,” said WVU’s seventh-year head coach. “Everyone wants to hand it over to Will, but Chugs looks really good. Chris has taken a lot of snaps here over the last couple of years. There is a comfort level that exists with him that doesn’t exist with Will, based on the number of snaps he has taken. Those guys are splitting reps.”
On the other end of the passes from Grier and Chugunov is a receiving corps that Holgorsen believes could be very good, even after the departure of Shelton Gibson, who left early for the NFL draft.
Holgorsen said junior Gary Jennings “looks great,” and he’s been pleased with junior David Sills, who had a solid freshman season at wide receiver, before transferring to junior college to try his hand at making it as a quarterback, his intended position when he enrolled at WVU. After a year away, he’s back in the fold and focused on being a receiver.
“He looks really good,” said Holgorsen. “He came in and it was a hobby for him. Now it’s not a hobby. It’s a full-time job. He looks really comfortable.”
Those two receivers will line up mainly at the slot position, and Holgorsen believes they’re a perfect fit for that role.
“They have really good body control, and they are tough,” he said. “Those inside guys have to be able to cover up linebackers. They have to be able to cover up strong safeties like Kyzir White and block those guys. One thing Jovon (Durante) struggled with a little bit on the inside is the fact that he’s 170 (pounds). I like the thicker guys that can really hold their own and be tough and get hit over the middle and bounce up.”
Durante, Marcus Simms, Ricky Rogers and Dominique Maiden are all competing for playing time at the outside receiver spots, and Ka’Raun White will certainly be in the mix once he is fully healthy.
The questions on offensive, though, pale in comparison to those on defense, where almost everything is in flux, especially on the defensive line.
Junior Jaleel Fields and senior Xavier Pegues have the most experience, though they’re still fairly fresh faces. Jalen Harvey and Ezekiel Rose are also in the mix, and Cabell Midland High School product Reese Donahue is pushing for a possible starting spot at defensive end.
“He’s doing well,” said Holgorsen. “He looks big, and he looks thick. He’s a big, strong and long kid. He’s a tough, try-hard guy. He will keep getting better.”
Another in-state product, Morgantown’s own Stone Wolfley, is also competing at defensive end, after moving over from tight end.
“He just couldn’t block anybody, so we are like, ‘Shoot, if you can’t block, let’s see if you can tackle,’” said Holgorsen of the son of former WVU offensive guard Dale Wolfley. “He’s big, he’s thick and we need ends. He has one of those d-line bodies that can hold gaps.
“He’s hard to block, because his armss are enormous. He has long arms that may help from a d-end point of view.”
Holgorsen said the more practices the players have in full pads, the more he learns about them, and the plan of attack will be adjusted accordingly.
“That’s what’s fun about it,” he said. “We’ll learn a little more each day and keep progressing from there.”