It’s game week for West Virginia and its head coach Neal Brown, and despite the modified preseason and new ways in which his team has practiced, he doesn’t expect a big difference in this year’s Week One game plan and those of prior seasons. Rather, it’s the conditioning of the team that is something of a concern.
“I think once we got into game week it was pretty much standard,” said Brown, who is entering his second year as the Mountaineers head coach. “We probably have more offense and defense installed because of those OTA workouts we had coming in to the fall, and a lot of Zoom time.”
“OTA,” an acronym for Organized Team Activities, is one that Brown lifted from the NFL, and that he uses to describe the early acclimation period that preceded the start of fall practice in college this year. Pads and contact weren’t allowed, but plenty of walkthrough work was on the menu. That allowed players to get many more half-speed reps of everything WVU hopes to use this year.
On the down side, Brown reiterated that full team work was less than a year ago. However, it doesn’t appear that will limit any plans put together for Saturday’s game.
“We don’t have as many full speed reps in. We only practiced together for about two weeks, and this week we are not going as long as we normally would be in week one due to our conditioning,” WVU’s second-year head coach admitted.
Brown, as well as other Big 12 coaches, noted that their teams’ conditioning is not where it usually is at this point in the season, due to the lack of formal workout programs over much of the spring and summer. However, virus prevention plans have been successful.
“Our camp operation has been ‘Stay well, get ready,’ and we have accomplished both of those goals,” Brown summed up as game week commences. “We’ve stayed pretty well these past 3-4 weeks. I like our protocols and procedures we have in place, but I’m not naive about the situation we are in. We are in a good position right now but we know that can change.”
The tenuousness of the situation was demonstrated on Monday morning when the school cancelled all in-person undergraduate classes through Sept. 25. That will not have any direct effect on the scheduled game against Eastern Kentucky on Saturday.
As inveterate planner, Brown has been forced to modify his thinking and approach to laying out mid-range and long-range schedules.
“I think it’s week by week now,” he said of his outlook. “This game week is different than any game week in the past, but we are starting to get into a routine. For planners, this has been a difficult time. I’ve learned and come to grips with it. You get as much information as you can and wait as long as you can to make a decision, but there are no long range plans. It’s this week and next week and that’s it.
“Change may be difficult for males at times and even more for football coaches,” he continued with a laugh. “But you have to adapt or die, and in this game dying is losing. We feel like we have adapted whether it’s COVID protocols or practice requirements. I think we have been able to change. Players feed off staff, and if the staff handles it and sets the standard, the players can follow.”
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In addition to the split squad practices of the first couple of weeks, Brown said that the biggest difference in the preseason was in what he calls “OTAs” – the early acclimation period that preceded the start of fall practice.
“In OTAs we cross-trained a group of individuals that were good at another position in high school,” he explained. “We put them through some fundamental drills at those other positions so we could have that base. So if we have to put them in on a Sunday at another position for that week’s game, we could practice them all week and feel comfortable with them running one or two things.”
Some common cross-training areas included wide receivers and defensive backs, and linemen and tight ends.
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Brown noted he hadn’t considered a minimum number of practices necessary in order to play a game on a Saturday, but hearkened back to some previous occurrences on his schedules.
“I haven’t put a whole lot of thought into that, so I don’t want to give a specific number. But in past experience, when we had a Saturday-Thursday (game) turnaournd, we took Sunday off then practiced Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. That would probably be the lowest number of practices I would be comfortable with.”
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Brown noted that the team only has one positive COVID-19 case at the moment, and that he was open throughout the spring and summer with players about participating this year.
“I think we are at a point now where our guys are excited about playing. We have been up front with them and asked them, ‘Do you want to play?’ several times. My assumption now is once they start the season they want to play. There’s a lot of excitement right now about wanting to play.”