Start of Classes, Football Have WVU Jumping
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — All of a sudden, Morgantown is alive again.
Yes, the students are back and have brought the traffic with them, but that is not what jolts Morgantown and really all of North Central West Virginia back to life.
Football season is upon us.
Kickoff is eight days away, but far more important than that is the fact that now the West Virginia football team has an identity.
Neal Brown has picked a quarterback.
Funny, really, for it didn’t matter which of the three candidates he picked, at least when comes to igniting life on campus and off.
It was that a new face at quarterback, complete with the enthusiasm and change of culture that was brought to the program by Brown and his staff, has mainlined blue and gold plasma into the cells of those who live for Saturdays at Milan Puskar Stadium.
On Wednesday, the opener with James Madison was announced as a sellout.
It isn’t that hopes for a championship are raging, as they were last year when it was Will Grier throwing to David Sills V and Gary Jennings Jr., because they aren’t. If that team couldn’t compete for the title, there’s no reason to believe that a new coach putting in a new system with a truck full of new players should figure to challenge Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, Oklahoma State and Iowa State.
Instead, this is more like taking the first step into the future, like Neil Armstrong’s moon walk. It was new, exciting and promising rather than offering immediate fulfillment.
But let us not write it off before it begins against James Madison, for there are signals coming from all angles that this first edition of Brown’s team at WVU might be better than many expect. Not just a team capable of having a winning season, but of making everything about the season having the excitement that was here during the best of times.
Let us understand, Austin Kendall has more on his shoulders than just shoulder pads, but Brown honestly believes he can handle it.
Is he the greatest QB ever at WVU? No, not by a longshot, not when the competition for that honor is the likes of Pat White, Major Harris, Geno Smith, Will Grier and Jeff Hostetler.
But don’t be fooled by the fact that it took Brown so long to make his announcement of the starter. Kendall was No. 1 all the way. His background is pure blueblood. He’s a top recruit out of high school taken by an elite Oklahoma program, caught behind a pair of Heisman Trophy winners that kept him off the field.
Smart, he graduated in three years; popular, eager and having been trained in a winning atmosphere by the best quarterback coach in the nation, Lincoln Riley.
He was, as you look at, the only choice and if he looked somewhat off at times during the spring, Brown blames that more on a weakness at wide receiver, with rust on an arm that was underutilized with the Sooners and uncertainess with the system that he was just learning.
“He just hasn’t played a lot of football,” Brown said in making the announcement on Tuesday. “There were a lot of positives about his situation at Oklahoma: Being around winning and seeing highly productive offenses, but he hasn’t gotten a lot of live reps.”
Now Brown’s gun has a trigger and it could be that the bullets he is working with have been badly underrated, that being the wide receivers. Brown has done a wonderful job of replacing the irreplaceable Sills, Jennings and Marcus Simms.
The receiving crop is now ripe and ready to explode with a possession receiver in Alabama transfer TJ Simmons and a redshirt freshman he inherited in Sam James, who draws praise for his ability to break free deep at each scrimmage.
What’s more, there are a pair of game breakers capable of taking underneath passes all the way in Tevin Bush and running back/slot receiver Alec Sinkfield, along with a promising redshirt freshman Bryce Wheaton.
And should Brown get a eligibility waiver on Temple wide receiver Sean Ryan he will have an even more solid group with which to work.
“We’re waiting. Hopefully we’ll find out (soon),” Brown said of Ryan. “How we’re handling that is we’re preparing him to play. We’re hopeful he gets the waiver. If he doesn’t, there’s nothing we can do about it. I think he has a strong case; I’ll say that. I think he has an extremely strong case.”
The offensive line has shown improvement, mammoth guard Mike Brown being among the most improved players on the scene, and they will block for a group of talented running backs who are headed by Kennedy McKoy.
A versatile performer who can run, catch and even throw, McKoy has Brown proclaiming “I believe he’s sitting on a big year.”
Oddly, with all this, the far bigger difference this year will be in the defense. Brown brings along veteran coordinator Vic Koenning with him from Troy to scrap Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 to go with a more aggressive attacking style.
The D-line may prove to be the strength of the defense with the Stills brothers — Dante and Darius — veteran Reese Donahue, an exciting, active newcomer in Reuben Jones and pass rushing pair in Taijh Alston and Quandorius Qualls.
If cornerbacks Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey hold up, not having to face the likes of Baker Mayfield or Kyler Murray, they might be able to keep opponents from expecting to score 50 points when they walk on the field.
Brown also solidified his special team with the addition of Josh Growden, an Australian punter. He transferred late from LSU and has given the Mountaineer a proven commodity at the position while also giving them an experienced holder to work with placekicker Evan Staley.
“I like where Evan Staley is at. I told you before that it was important that we added Josh Growden as a punter, but it was also important to add him as a holder. He started three years at LSU as their holder, and he’ll be our starting holder when we open up next week,” Brown said.