MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Five days into spring drills, the Mountaineer football team got in its first session of full-contact work.
After two non-padded practices and two with just helmets and shoulder pads, West Virginia donned all its gear on Thursday.
“We went full pads and did some full tackling,” noted WVU head coach Neal Brown said shortly after Thursday’s practice. “We did a lot of tackling with our twos, minimal tackling with our ones.
“Offensively, I thought (freshman running back) A’Varius Sparrow was a guy that was tough to tackle. He’s physical. He has courage to run the ball up the middle and square guys up. (Freshman) James Thomas at linebacker had a couple big hits. Those were two guys from a contact standpoint that kind of stood out today.”
Since West Virginia’s linebacking corps is relatively thin, Thomas is a player who is getting plenty of reps this spring.
The 6-foot-2, 228-pound freshman from Mitchell County (Ga.) High School was a first-team Class A all-state player in 2019 and was the Albany area offensive player of the year in both 2017 and 2018.
“He played all over the place in his small high school in Georgia, a good high school program but a small one,” explained Brown. “He played all kinds of positions, about every level he could – safety, linebacker, rush end, running back, quarterback. He did a little of everything in high school.”
Thomas is now concentrating on middle linebacker for the Mountaineers. He saw action in four games at WVU last year with most of that action coming on special teams. His role figures to expand this coming season.
“We have him locked in at the mike linebacker position,” said Brown. “We feel that will maximize his abilities. He’s a guy we need to be a factor on special teams and at linebacker. Everyday is a learning and growth opportunity for him.
“He’s a good athlete and has really good contact courage and he runs well. We just have to get him where he lines up consistently and he’s disciplined with his eyes. He needs to play lower, so he can defeat blocks. He and coach (Jeff) Koonz are spending a lot of time together.
“We have high expectations for him. He had some positives today,” said Brown of Thomas after Thursday’s practice, “but there were also a lot of teaching moments where he has to learn how to play at this level. He’s not where he needs to be yet, but he has potential.”
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Safety K.J. Martin also is expected to be a major factor for the Mountaineer defense in 2021.
After opting out of action last fall, the 6-foot-1, 199-pound Charleston, West Virginia, native has returned to the practice field this spring.
“He was with the twos today and got in quite a bit of tackling. It was really the first live action he’s got since TCU in 2019, so it’s been a while,” noted Brown. “He’s a little rusty, but he’s flying around.”
A two-time first-team Class AAA all-state product while at Capital High School, Martin earned playing time as a true freshman at WVU in 2019. He participated in all 12 games that season, starting four of them, as he recorded 50 tackles and five pass deflection. Though he hasn’t played since the 2019 season, he has gotten bigger and stronger.
“His body has changed quite a bit. He’s up to mid-190s, which is quite a bit heavier than he was. That gives him a better opportunity to compete,” said Brown. “He had a good winter. He has to continue to do the right things. He’s learning both safety positions. He’s had a positive five days through these first two weeks.”
Martin is expected to again line up at safety for the Mountaineers – likely cat or free.
West Virginia returns three others who have starting experience at the safety spots with Sean Mahone (cat), Alonzo Addae (free) and Scottie Young (spear) all back this season. There’s not a lot of depth, though, beyond that trio plus Martin.
Depth also is currently an issue for West Virginia at cornerback, where sophomore Nicktroy Fortune is the lone returning full-time starter.
The safety and corner positions are getting some help this spring from a pair of true freshmen who enrolled at WVU in January.
Davis Mallinger, a 6-foot-1, 175-pounder from Melbourne, Florida, is currently working at safety, while Andrew Wilson-Lamp, a 6-foot-3, 180-pound product of Massillon Washington (Ohio) High School, is getting his initial college look at cornerback.
“They are both coming along,” said Brown of the two early enrollees. “Lamp played a little bit of a corner as a senior, but he was mostly a receiver in high school. Davis, the same thing. He played a little bit of safety and defensive back as a junior, but he was predominantly a wideout throughout his high school career.
“Both are learning. They are each really fast and really long. They are hungry. You can tell it’s important to them by how they prepare,” WVU’s coach added. “I think they’ll be factors for us this fall, on special teams and depending on their learning curve, maybe on defense.”
The young DBs could factor into the Mountaineers’ plans this coming season, but the corners who will likely be at the top of WVU’s depth chart have more experience.
Fortune (6-0, 195 lbs., Soph.) started all 10 games for West Virginia in 2020 in which he had 35 tackles and an interception.
“Nicktroy is a guy who runs really well, is strong and as athletic as anybody we’ve got,” observed Brown. “I want him to take some chances. He needs to play more free and have confidence. I have a lot of confidence in him and all our coaches do. I want him to play with confidence, and the spring is the time to develop that.”
Jackie Matthews (5-10, 194 lbs., Jr.) and Daryl Porter (5-11, 188 lbs., Fr.) appear to be the top candidates for the starting cornerback spot opposite Fortune. That job was vacated when Dreshun Miller transferred to Auburn.
Matthews played in 10 games last year, starting one (the Liberty Bowl) and finished with three tackles. Porter saw action in six games, though he wasn’t credited with a tackle. Both are expected to be major factors this coming season.
“Jackie Matthews is a guy who is having a really solid spring,” noted Brown of the Birmingham, Alabama, native who spent two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. “In year two for a junior college player you see that a lot, where it really starts to click. You’re starting to see that. He’s been solid and competitive.
“Daryl Porter is coming back – he was out for a couple weeks – so he’s just getting back into shape,” added the coach. “He was better today than he has been thus far.”
Brown is also high on a walk-on cornerback, Malachi Ruffin (5-10, 187 lbs., Soph.), who recorded four tackles for WVU on special teams last season.
“Ruffin is a kid who has played some special teams for us, and I think he’ll be a key special teams player for us in the fall,” said Brown of the Nashville, North Carolina, native. “He’s as fast as anybody we have, and he’s getting some quality reps at corner for us.”
Those corners top the Mountaineers’ depth chart at the moment, though Brown said he plans on finding additional help for the position, whether it be mining the transfer portal or bringing in a junior college prospect.
“We’re going to go and get some help there,” stated Brown. “If we had to in a pinch, Alonzo could play some there, but that’s not something we plan to do. We’re going to go get some help.”