After a long wait, Neal Brown’s West Virginia football squad officially begins practice on Monday.
Since March 13 when the COVID-19 virus shut down NCAA sports, nothing has been usual nor will it be anytime soon.
Brown and his staff have had a lot of time to think about how they want to conduct fall training camp, and those drills begin Monday.
This is truly modern stuff Brown has planned to keep his team safe and healthy this fall. In fact, the practice schedule his guys are going through for the next week to 10 days is probably more medically driven than coaching driven.
For instance, there will be two totally separate groups practicing to minimize individual contact, a Gold Group and a Blue Group.
Instead of splitting them up by ones and threes and twos and fours, Brown has done so based on who lives with whom and who spends the most time together off the field.
When one group is doing something the other group is doing something else.
Today, the Gold Group will arrive at the stadium first where it will eat breakfast in an outdoor dining area up on the East concourse of Milan Puskar Stadium where the weight room is now set up.
“Everything is spread out,” Brown said. “The first group will basically come in and get taped, get treatment and eat breakfast. While they are at breakfast we will do our virtual position meeting there with their iPads. That will be like our install meeting.”
Meanwhile, the Blue Group, still at home, will log in on its iPads and join the virtual meeting.
Once the Gold Group is finished, it will proceed to the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility to get prepared to practice at the Steve Antoline Family Football Practice Field.
In the meantime, the Blue Group will arrive to eat breakfast on the concourse, get taped, receive treatment and then begin its pre-practice work in the indoor facility while the Gold Group is finishing up its work.
When the Gold Group is finished, the players will exit the practice facility to one side and then the Blue Group will take the field for its practice once the field is properly cleaned.
The Gold Group will then wrap up post-practice work in the indoor practice facility, followed by the Blue Group.
The two groups will then have lunch separately on the concourse.
Following a mandatory three-hour break, the Gold will have in-person video review and then will go lift weights, followed by the Blue.
The only time the players are required to be in a room together is when they do in-person film study with their position coaches.
The next practice the two groups will switch with the Blue Group going first followed by the Gold Group.
Once all activities are completed the team will eat dinner on the concourse.
The player practice safety protocol was established by Patrick Johnston, director of football operations, Vince Blankenship, head athletic trainer, and Mike Joseph, strength and conditioning coach, with oversight from team doctor A.J. Monseau.
“All of our meetings are virtual – team, special teams and position meetings,” Brown explained. “The Gold and Blue Group do the same thing. It’s essentially two-a-days for the coaches. This has really how we’ve been operating since we started the 20-hour rule where you get the six hours of walk-throughs, six hours of position meetings and eight hours of conditioning.”
Brown said the practices will be shorter and crisper than a typical fall training camp practice.
“What we are going to do is go from a real high-intensity drill to a low-intensity drill and then back to a high-intensity drill and then to a low drill. That’s how the practices are going to work out,” he said.
In some respects, despite only having two spring practices before college sports were shut down, Brown said the team is probably a little ahead in terms of football knowledge.
They were able to do a lot of virtual football instruction before the Football Oversight Committee permitted teams to do walk-throughs with a football during the six-week, return-to-play period.
“We’ve had 12 walk-throughs leading into fall camp, which you don’t normally get during the summer,” Brown explained. “Usually, you have spring ball and then you have a very limited meeting time and nothing with the ball with the players until you get into fall camp.
“That’s a big break,” he continued. “You are talking about more than three months between spring ball and when you open fall camp. Now we have had 12 walk-throughs leading into fall camp so our guys, knowledge wise, are fine. They just don’t have as many full-speed reps.”
Brown said his skill guys and specialists were able to get a lot accomplished this summer, and the eight weeks of conditioning were also helpful
He said his guys are not yet in tip-top shape, but they will get there by the end of August.
“All of the players and the staff are excited about coming back, but I don’t want to burn them out,” Brown explained. “To be honest, the coaches aren’t any different than the players. They are not conditioned to be working all day every day. We are going to go on a gradual climb to get ready for a game.”
Brown cautions that this is still a young and inexperienced football team.
“You look at our scholarship numbers and the amount of people who have been in our program longer than the time I’ve been here is not a whole lot of them,” he noted. “We are really young and a little bit immature, but there is some good in that because they are eager too. I like our energy. I do think that, mentally, our capacity just from a football intelligence standpoint on offense, defense and special teams is encouraging.”
Notes– Brown indicated junior defensive end Taijh Alston will not be ready to go for preseason camp and will likely miss the first half of the season. Alston’s 2019 was cut short two games into it when he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Missouri loss.
• Also, sophomore safety K.J. Martin announced last week on Twitter that he is opting out for the season because of health and safety concerns.
• Brown said it will be important for coaches to be willing to do things differently this fall.
“There is just a lot going on,” he said. “I think the recovery days and the days off are going to be important. How you manage your players – whether it’s COVID-related or not COVID-related – you have to get them to the season where they are prepared to play because there is going to be an extended time frame to the season.
“You may not play as many games, but the time is going to be longer so we have to be able to make sure they can withstand that time frame,” he said.
• Brown indicated that he will probably spend a little bit more time on the defensive side of the field this fall observing his altered defensive staff that was shuffled when WVU and former defensive coordinator Vic Koenning “mutually agreed to separate.”
Defensive line coach Jordan Lesley is now overseeing the defensive front with cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae coordinating the secondary.
Jeff Koonz is coaching the inside linebacker and handling special teams play while Dontae Wright is leading the safeties.
Analyst and former defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel has returned to the field to handle the outside linebackers.
“I think it’s important for them that I’m down there,” Brown said. “I have full trust in the guys we have coaching them, but I want to be down there some so our defensive players see me. The players have a lot of faith in what we’re doing from a leadership standpoint.”
Brown said he continues to be happy with the overall schematics of the defense, but noted that there will likely be some tweaks made during fall camp.
“The coaches have probably had more time during the offseason so we will be a little bit different. We would have been a little bit different regardless, but the system we are running is multiple,” he explained. “I think it answers the challenges of the multiple offenses we have in our league.”
• The Amway Preseason Coaches’ Poll was released late last week and four of West Virginia’s 10 opponents are ranked in the Top 25, with three more receiving Top 25 votes. That’s 70% of this year’s schedule getting Top 25 consideration.
“The coaching in our league is at a very high level and I think there are some creative minds in our league that have probably used this time advantageously,” Brown said. “I also think they are well capable of handling the different aspects of what we’ve had to deal with in the last four or five months.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” he added. “Our kids are excited about playing. They are excited about getting on the field, but there are still a lot of questions.”