MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — If the final home game of any football season is Senior Day, it is only fitting the first game of the season should be Freshman Day, and so it was as West Virginia opened the 2020 season with a 56-10 victory over Eastern Kentucky.
And so it was Saturday in an opening game unlike any Mountaineer Field has seen in its 40-year history.
It was a game played without fans, in the midst of a pandemic with protests outside the stadium about high school teams in Monongalia County being unable to play while WVU was allowed to play.
And it was a day when Neal Brown got a chance to prove he had a precocious freshman group on his hands.
Given freedom to not worry about blowing redshirt years because the rules were waived for this season in anticipation of roster shortages due to COVID-19 virus and because 11 players were suspended for the game, Brown was given a chance to get the feet wet of what seems to be a talented freshman class.
Three of them started: center Zach Frazier, wide receivers Reese Smith and Sam Brown. Three others made strong impressions, quarterback Garrett Greene, cornerback Jairo Faverus and defensive lineman Akheem Mesidor.
It began with Frazier from Fairmont Senior High School, who not only started but who played as many snaps as anyone in the game while Chase Behrndt sat out with one of the suspensions.
He was unfazed.
“I went by his hotel room last night, doing bed check,” Brown revealed after the opening game. “I asked if he was ready to go.”
“He didn’t blink. There was no hesitation,” Brown said.
It was something he liked, but not something that surprised him because he’s been high on him since he arrived.
“I really like how he competes,” Brown said. “I like how he prepares. He loves the game, it’s important to him. I like how he is really level-headed. He doesn’t get too high; he doesn’t get too low.”
Brown had no intention of starting him this year until the opportunity presented itself and it’s expected he will be used as Behrndt’s backup now that all the players have served their one-game suspension, but look for Frazier to play.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” Brown went on. “We were confident. He’s going to play a lot of football here.”
Brown also believes that it helped him in his preparation going head-to-head with former Fairmont Senior teammate Darius Stills, the Preseason Big 12 Player of the Year.
“He went against Darius every day, every single day. So, we had Fairmont on Fairmont every day. If we kept score, Darius probably won, but Zach won his fair share. Day after day going against Darius, he got better,” Brown said.
But it wasn’t only “The Zach Frazier Freshman Frolics.”
Brown and Smith split eight catches between to rank second behind Sam James’ five receptions to lead the team. Brown gained 43 yards and showed himself to be deep threat with 22-yard grab while Smith gained 32 yards with his four receptions.
“Reese has been ultra-competitive since he’s been here,” said Brown, who also saw another phase of his game on display. “He also had a couple of really nice blocks on the perimeter than don’t get talked about and he played on two special teams. I have high hopes for him moving forward. He is going to be a guy we can really build around.
“I also thought Sam Brown did a good job. He had a couple of big time catches on the opening couple of drives. Those three guys are going to play a lot of football here for a long time. I was pleased they got off to a quick start.”
Faverus, the import from The Netherlands, had a couple of eye-opening tackles out of his defensive back spot and showed some strong coverage as well while Mesidor, who got some rave reviews through camp, made his presence felt almost immediately with a big-time tackle for a loss.
Most intriguing, perhaps, was the fact that Greene, a 5-11, 192-pound quarterback from Florida, got to play the fourth quarter, a sign that Brown thinks something more of him than just a third-string QB whom he hopes improves.
For the game Greene rushed five times for 33 yards and completed three of his four passes for 24 yards.
Perhaps most telling was his first carry, where he gained only one yard and was welcomed to college football with a hard tackle, but bounced right back up and was ready to go without showing any signs of shock or awe.
“The first play wasn’t good,” Neal Brown admitted. He got hit, but I think he learned from that.”
Other than that, it was more good than bad, which you seldom hear about with a true freshman playing his first game, let alone in the team’s opener in a season with so many distractions.
“I was glad we got to play him,” Brown said. “That was the hope going into the game. He was up and down. He only really had one bad decision.”
And that was him showing inexperience, nothing else.
“I got on him because I thought he just kind of danced on the sideline a little bit, which when you’re up by that score, you don’t need to do. But he played the game with great energy He has extreme competitiveness, which is a positive. I thought he got the ball out of his hand and he ran the ball pretty effectively.”