Sites & Sights: Some Programs Seem Snake Bitten
By Kevin Kinder
There are teams dotted throughout West Virginia’s history that were derailed by injuries. It’s rare, of course, for a squad to navigate the course of an entire season without some missed games due to individuals who were banged up. But there are some clubs that have had promising years nipped in the bud due to personnel losses.
The champion program for that at WVU seems to be the women’s hoops team, which has had enough season-ending knee injuries over recent years to provide a lifetime of work for the school’s orthopedists. Football, of course, has had its share, with the 1984 and 1994 teams coming to mind. This year, it’s baseball, which has seen two key members go down to season-enders and a third that will now miss a critical part of the season.
First, it was first baseman Marques Inman, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in March. Inman is now on crutches with a huge brace on his knee, but his value to WVU was apparent during his abbreviated season. When he went down, he was hitting .351 with a .931 OPS, and had six extra base hits among his 20 at bats. He gave WVU great versatility not only at first base but also at DH.
Next, in a strange occurrence, Conner Dotson broke the humerus in his pitching arm while warming up prior to his starting assignment against Oklahoma State on April 2. Dotson underwent surgery to repair the break, and while the long-term prognosis appears to be good, he too is out for the rest of the 2017 season after starting six games.
That’s two major pieces down, and now a third is threatening to put another serious crimp in WVU’s hopes for a postseason run. Just three batters into his starting assignment against Kansas State last Saturday, sophomore Michael Grove injured his pitching arm in the first inning. Grove was forced to leave the game, and while initial test results indicate that he avoided ligament damage, the Wheeling native is still expected to miss a few weeks of action. This could be another devastating blow to a pitching corps that has leaned heavily on its starters this year.
West Virginia’s coaching staff has done an excellent job in cobbling together a rotation and trying to speed development of its young pitchers as fast as it can. But at some point there may not be enough bodies to go around. The loss of two weekend starters would be a huge blow to any pitching staff in the country, and while there will be talk of “next man up” and “growing up in a hurry,” it’s not fair to expect those youngsters to produce at the same level as those they are replacing. WVU had enough hitters to help plug the gap left by Inman (although his loss did change the approach to the designated hitter spot), but can it weather the loss of three mainstays?
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WVU’s football program, like many schools, has moved its approach to spring games to be more of another spring practice – specifically, a controlled scrimmage that allows a lot of plays to be run while eliminating special teams. The approach is sound, mostly due to the fact that there just aren’t enough players to split up into two viable squads with both an offense and a defense. By making it an offense vs. defense affair, players can be mixed and matched much more easily, and functional groups kept available for work on different situations, such as passing downs, short yardage, etc.
That does, though, throw the evaluation of the units into a different orbit. Looking at the final score as a metric is useless, because no real game uses the modified scoring system like the spring contest. Things may be weighted toward the defense, because the offense rarely gets a short field, as there are no blocked punts or other field-flipping plays available. There’s also the matter of backups involved – how many times was it truly the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense butting heads? Add in the many players who sat out due to injury or rehab status, and getting a read on one side of the ball or the other is about as difficult as judging what’s beneath the surface of Europa from photos taken 1,000 miles up.
With that said, the focus on individuals can be more instructive, so here are a few players who caught the eye during the spring-ending scrimmage.
RB Justin Crawford – He was back to the explosive self he was before ankle injuries slowed him for the second half of the 2016 season. He has both wiggle and burst, and if he stays healthy, he could put up really big numbers. If he can average half of the 11 yards per carry he recorded in the spring game, look out.
WR Alejandro Marenco – OK, the spring always features a walk-on or formerly anonymous player who “breaks out” and has a big game in April, only to fade back into the woodwork in the fall. Marenco, a senior walk-on, has a ton of work to do before he challenges for a spot in the rotation, but he showed a knack for getting open and got after defenders on blocking assignments.
WR Ricky Rogers – The redshirt junior is at a critical point in his career. If he wants to get on the field, now is the time. He helped his cause by getting deep for a 60-yard reception, displaying good concentration while making a difficult catch on a deep diagonal route. If he can improve his ability to get open, he could make a push in a group that is dotted with question marks.
DL Ezekiel Rose – The big juco defensive lineman seemed to show up a lot in the backfield. He defeated several blocks and split the occasional double team to record three tackles and a sack. Can he do so against Big 12 offensive linemen? If so, he will get a firm spot in the rotation.
S Jovanni Stewart – In this scrimmage at least, Stewart was one of those “always around the ball” guys. Despite his short stature (5-foot-8), he’s a physical player who brings a lot of power on every hit. He wound up as the leading tackler in the quasi-official stats with six, but it was more a matter of him passing the eye test, which he did very easily.
CB Elijah Battle – The way he breaks on the ball is impressive. He interrupted a pair of passes that would have been completions (one for a touchdown), and showed the ability to get into the receiver’s frame to disrupt catches.
At this point I’m sure you’re thinking, “What about Will Grier? And David Sills?” I purposely left them until last, mostly to avoid the hype train, but also to group them together, because any description of their play has to start there. The synergy they displayed in the passing game was excellent – all the more given the fact that they have had the benefit of only one spring together. On several occasions, Grier threw the ball to spots, trusting Sills to be there on time, and more often than not he was. Six catches for 96 yards later, the duo had fans buzzing about their potential.