Lyons Cautions Patience As WVU Football Goes Through Transformational Period
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — How do you rate a football coach before he’s coached his first game at your school?
That was what West Virginia athletic director Shane Lyons was faced with the other day in the midst of his state of the union media briefing at the end of the school year.
He knew he had to address the football team, yet any “analysis” of it at this time is far more speculation than anything else, there being so many unknowns surrounding new coach Neal Brown, who makes his first journey into Big 12 and Power 5 football after proving he could win the Group of 5 at Troy.
He had to shape a staff, find a team, create a culture, keep the players he wanted to keep, learn them and their abilities as best he could, find a quarterback, recruit based on promises and … well, you get the point.
He can’t promise conference championships or playoffs, for he has yet to win a game.
Lyons is aware of that and admits that it is a very large part of the reality within they both exist.
“We joke that he hasn’t won a football game yet, but he’s on the right track,” Lyons said, about to embark on a journey into that land of reality.
“I think we all have to be realistic there. He’s taking over a program that lost several key players on the offensive side of the ball to the NFL Draft.”
While Lyons didn’t stop there, it might be appropriate at this time to list them:
Quarterback Will Grier, receivers Gary Jennings Jr., David Sills V, Marcus Simms, Trevon Wesco, tackle Yodny Cajuste, and center Matt Jones to transfer.
In a way that is a luxury for he really isn’t coaching offense — which is his specialty — with a group of players that Dana Holgorsen got so much out of, thereby escaping such comparisons, but he also is building from nearly scratch.
Lyons understands that and wants his fan base to understand it, too.
“He’ll talk about how the running backs are good, but we’re going to be a little weak from a receiver standpoint,” Lyons said. “If we can keep the offensive line healthy, we’ll be OK, but that means keeping everyone healthy when we don’t have a whole lot of depth.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we have a lot of players over there who have received some playing time in the past, but there are probably no big names that potentially — hopefully — have a breakthrough year and go to the NFL. There are some holes to be filled,” Lyons said.
This is a harsh reminder that has been overlooked.
There are a lot of players back — good players.
But the two best — Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year David Long Jr. and All-Big 12 safety Kenny Washington — along with Derrek Pitts, who has transferred to Marshall, and Kenny Robinson, who is also in the transfer porta. are gone. So too are defensive line stalwarts Kenny Bigelow, Jabril Robinson and Ezekiel Rose.
What’s more, the players who remain were recruited to a different defensive concept and have to be reshaped.
“He’s filling those holes by working hard and building a great culture,” Lyons said. “I think particularly with the culture in that locker room, they believe in each other. Myself as an athletic director and talking to some of the student-athletes that are returning, they believe in Coach Brown and his staff, and that’s a great thing to hear. Hopefully that resonates.”
It is going to have to echo across the campus, throughout the state, from hollow to hollow, for this is something they haven’t seen around here since Don Nehlen came to replace Frank Cignetti.
Nehlen left and Rich Rodriguez came in as an unproven outsider aimed at changing things. His first season produced but three wins.
Bill Stewart took over a solid team from him as part of his program and while Dana Holorsen was an outsider coming in he took over a program that had won nine or more games in six straight seasons.
So the task facing Brown and Co. is a difficult one, but Lyons is convinced it is heading in the right direction.
“Football has done a tremendous job in short period of time with the type of men they are recruiting. We will have 12 or 13 committed for next year’s class by next week.” he said. “We’re showing them where we’re heading and asking them if they want to be part of this.
“From my lens, it’s been exceptional,” he continued. “I’ve been with Neal a lot through the last couple months traveling with the (fundraising) caravan, and he and his staff have done a tremendous job.
“ I’m talking about continuing to work and grind and get young men here who have never had an interest in West Virginia before. I think he’s selling — which is truly us as a program — the family atmosphere.”