West Virginia’s football focus this spring is on teaching, but just how does that play out from practice to practice, and from player to player? Not surprisingly, West Virginia head coach Neal Brown, a meticulous planner, has a process in place to address that, but it’s also flexible enough to adapt to changing situations and different results.
“I have a sketch of a plan for 15 spring practices,” Brown said during WVU’s first week of drills. “We are going a little bit later (this year), so we are probably not going to go as much contact during this spring as we have done in the past. We’re a little bit older, and a little bit thinner, so I think we have to be careful, because if someone were to get injured it might be a little bit tight on a turnaround (recovery) schedule.”
The benefits of better weather (even though a freeze and potential snow on Thursday is affecting the end of the first segment) was one reason for starting a bit later. The absence of a traditional spring break was another, although Brown is incorporating some down time after the first five practices to assess the results of the first third of the spring.
“We went helmets the first two days and we will have a physical week (this) week. I don’t know if we are going to tackle to the ground but we are going to have some good thud practices. We’ll go through Thursday morning, then give them off until Monday evening, and we won’t practice again until Wednesday. That gives us five practices, and we’ll see where we are after those five and then plan for the last 10.
Brown noted that adjustments to a future practice often occur based on the results of a previous one.
“We had two-point plays as a point of emphasis (during Saturday’s practice). We went in and watched those. The next practice didn’t have a two-point segment, but I didn’t think we played those particularly well on either side, so we’ll add those back in, and do some kind of competition two-point period (in the next practice) to teach off the previous one,” Brown explained.
Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker provide more detail on the nuts and bolts of the teaching progress, which is one big circle that repeats between visits to the classroom and practice field.
“Any way you can get a guy to be able to retain information is crucial,” said Parker, who is entering his second season as WVU’s offensive mentor. “You have to hit all modes of learning, because we have all kinds of different teachers. We’ll put the players up on the board (in meeting rooms) and let them install the play. I’ll be sure to teach it in different ways. We might use magnets to make sure we are hitting all different kinds of spots. You check their notes, and then you inspect what you’ve taught and make sure they know it and are retaining it through tests and quizzes.
“Then we take them out on the field and walk them through it, and then we get to do it fast. Then it’s back to the film room, and we say ‘O.K., now you did it fast, here’s how we improve it or what we did right,’ and then we start it all over again. It’s a huge progression, and that’s why I think it’s one of the best professions to have a teaching background in.”
Parker has a masters degrees in education, putting him in with a large group of coaches.
“A lot of guys didn’t know whether they were going to coach in high school or college, so they got a teaching degree, and that helps us have a bunch of different ways of teaching well,” he explained. “COVID has made us better teachers, too. We had to do all of this over ZOOM, and talk about having to find ways to reach guys!”
Defensive coordinator Jordan Lesley, sometimes a man of fewer words, summed the process thusly: “Practice, correct, and re-practice. Let them make the mistakes, let them fail, then correct it, and do the same thing the next time you are out there. That’s the best way to (teach) your young guys, and guys who are playing multiple positions.”
“You have to focus on the negative,” Lesley continued, noting that involves looking at what the team was bad at previously and trying to improve it. “We have to do things that our personnel allows us to do. You can’t say ‘because the Chiefs are doing it or the Patriots are doing it or because Alabama is doing it, let’s look at it. Everything works on a whiteboard.'”
That teaching process is concerned not only with the physical process, but also with the mental aspect of play. Brown notes that he has seen some progress in that area too. It’s one that he cited as another goal for the spring, and provided one example from an 11-on-11 session.
“Our defense was doing some things which were tough looks for (the offense), and I knew there were going to be some negative plays and I wanted to see how they would react. Garrett Greene threw a pick because he never saw a safety that bounced in. I wasn’t surprised, but I was more curious to see how he would react. He threw an easy completion on the next play, and I was excited about that, because that’s growth. If we did that back in the fall, that [pick] would have led to another negative play and another negative play.”
As always the progress from teaching can come in fits and starts, and the progression isn’t always an upward curve. However, with continued repetition, Brown and his staff believe they are laying the foundation for an even more competitive program.