Emotions Running High For WVU’s 17 Seniors
MORGANTOWN, W.Va–Friday’s meeting between West Virginia and Oklahoma in Morgantown comes with high stakes, as the winner will earn a berth in the Big 12 Championship game on Dec. 1 in Arlington, Texas, and the loser likely will stay home.
But for 17 WVU seniors, Friday night’s contest also has emotional significance, as it will be their final game ever at Mountaineer Field.
The Senior Day ceremony will include defensive linemen Ezekiel Rose, Brenon Thrift, Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow; defensive backs Toyous Avery and Dravon Askew-Henry; kickers Billy Kinney and Skyler Simcox; running back Brady Watson; offensive linemen Yodny Cajuste and Isaiah Hardy; wide receivers Gary Jennings, David Sills, Dominique Maiden and William Crest; tight end Trevon Wesco; and quarterback Will Grier.
“We do our best as coaches not to look ahead,” explained WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen. “Obviously when this schedule came out over a year ago, our hopes were for this game to mean something. This is the first time in our Big 12 tenure (which began in 2012) that this game means something. I know we’ve only had the championship game for two years, but we knew we were going to have to go through OU to be able to get there. So, here it is; we have to go through OU to be able to get to the championship game, and that’s right where we wanted to be. This game is going to be exciting, and we’re looking forward to what’s as good of a matchup as you could possibly get.
“We’re really fired up about it, and to add to it, it’s on our field, in front of our fans, Senior Night, with the 17 of them, you guys know how, especially 12 or 15 of these guys, my thoughts on those guys as far as what they’ve done for me and the program,” added Holgorsen, who is in his eighth season as the Mountaineers’ head coach. “It doesn’t get any better than this. Oklahoma is used to being in this game, so not only are they a really, really, really good, talented, well-coached football team, they’ve been in this game as well. It should be fun. Here we go.”
For West Virginia’s 17 seniors, each has taken a different path to this final home game of their college career. A few started as walk-ons, but most are scholarship players now. Eleven of them were transfers of some variety (junior college or four-year college) – Rose, Sills, Simcox, Hardy, Maiden, Thrift, Avery, Grier, Robinson, Bigelow and Wesco – while Jennings and Watson are fourth-year seniors.
That leaves just four of this season’s seniors who are of the fifth-year variety, having entered WVU as part of the class of 2014 – Askew-Henry, Cajuste, Crest and Kinney. West Virginia’s starting punter the past three seasons, Kinney came to the Mountaineers from Morgantown’s University High School as a walk-on, while the other three were scholarship players from the beginning who were part of WVU’s 21-member class of 2014.
Out of those 21, four were junior college players who previously used up their eligibility – quarterback Skyler Howard, linebacker Edward Muldrow, cornerback Keishawn Richardson and offensive lineman Sylvester Towns – while three others were high school signees who spent four seasons at WVU before they graduated last year – defensive lineman Jaleel Field, linebacker Xavier Preston and wide receiver Ricky Rogers. That still left 11 who dropped by the wayside along the trail – offensive lineman Dontae Angus, offensive lineman Amanii Brown, safety Daejuan Funderburk, linebacker Davonte James, wide receiver Jacob McCrary, cornerback Jaylon Myers, defensive lineman Tyree Owens, wide receiver Lamar Parker, offensive lineman Walter Rauterkus, offensive lineman Justin Scott and running back Donte Thomas-Williams.
For the most part, those who have stayed have prospered. The fifth-year seniors have enjoyed a cumulative record of 40-22 in their time at WVU and have participated in a bowl at the end of every season.
From a wide-eyed kid from Aliquippa, Pa., to a fifth-year senior now sporting a beard Abraham Lincoln would be proud of, Askew-Henry is the ultimate Mountaineer veteran. He’s started every one of the 49 games he’s participated in during his career. He’ll equal the WVU record for career starts Friday night, currently held by former West Virginia center Joe Madsen (50, 2008-12). Then as long as he stays healthy, Askew-Henry will reach either 51 or 52 starts in the postseason.
Compared to anyone else, it’s been a long college career but one the Mountaineer safety says still went by in a hurry.
“It feels like just yesterday that I got here,” noted Askew-Henry. “I’ve loved every minute of it.
“I’m going to miss everything – my teammates, the fans, the field, everything. There may be a few tears on Senior Night just because of my love for West Virginia.”
Askew-Henry started his first game as a Mountaineer, lining up at free safety against Alabama in 2014. He remained WVU starting free safety throughout his true freshman and sophomore seasons. A preseason knee injury prior to his junior year kept him off the field for all of 2016 and forced him to take a medical redshirt. But he returned to a starting role in 2017 and through 2018, though this year he has moved down to the spur safety position.
Along the way he’s grown as a leader.
“Every senior on this team, I’m close with them,” Askew-Henry stated. “It doesn’t matter if they are on offense or defense, if they’ve been here one year, two years, whatever. We’re all tight. I feel like I’ve known these guys forever.”
The 6-foot, 201-pound fifth-year senior has recorded 200 tackles, six interception, 10 pass deflections and a million memories in his Mountaineer career.
“My first day here, I remember walking into my dorm room and unpacking my things,” he smiled. “I looked up and saw Yodny. He was this big guy, and I was like, ‘Who is that?!!!’ Now he’s one of my best friends. It’s crazy everything that’s happened, but I don’t regret anything. I’m glad how it all played out.”
WVU receiver David Sills took a different path with a few more curves than Askew-Henry and most anyone else. He came to West Virginia in 2015, but went to El Camino (Calif.) Community College in 2016 with the hopes of resurrecting his quarterback dreams. When that didn’t work out, he returned to the Mountaineers. Now a couple years later, he is one of the top receivers in the country with 120 catches for 1,876 yards and 33 TDs over the past two seasons.
“Looking back on it, it definitely has gone by pretty fast, but I’ve had an awesome journey,” said the Wilmington, Del., native. “I can’t really put into words what West Virginia University and this state have meant to me. Going to a junior college and coming back and being welcomed with open arms is something I’ll never forget. I couldn’t imagine a better way to have Senior Night, playing Oklahoma with Big 12 implications on the line. It should be great.”