MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For a number of the 14 practices throughout the spring, West Virginia’s football team was out there battling the cold, drizzling rain, some sleet, or a strong wind.
It was almost like the shadow of last year’s disappointment was still being cast over them.
But Saturday, spring bloomed. At least, they called it the Gold-Blue Spring Game but it was more like we skipped spring altogether. It was summer, the thermometer soaring right through 80 degrees, that huge orange disc radiating from the sky above.
An omen? Perhaps. Certainly, it was obvious that this would be a new year, a different year.
New offensive coordinator Graham Harrell had promised excitement. He promised to try and score every time his offense took the field and even if the score was only 17-15 in favor of the Gold team, things obviously had changed as time after time there were big plays, all of them creating a new confidence and attitude.
And they did it with three quarterbacks who probably won’t be starting, the position carrying a sign that says, in the view of many, “Reserved for transfer J.T. Daniels from Georgia and USC.”
But no one was hanging his head. They were competing, pushing, pressing, throwing the ball out there and letting the likes of Bryce Ford-Wheaton, Kaden Prather, Sam James and Morgantown High’s walk-on wide receiver Preston Fox, who leapt out of the shadows of obscurity and into a post-game locker room scholarship presentation after catching five passes for 117 yards.
“The offense last year was a little more conservative,” said Prather, whose day included four catches for 43 yards, including one on difficult downfield toss to his back shoulder.. “We took our time. Coach Graham likes to take shots so it’s going to be more exciting.”
Two examples of how things changed over the off-season. At halftime, Garrett Greene was having a tough time of it, having gone just 1 for 3 in the first half including two badly overthrown passes to open receivers downfield.
But how did he come out to start the second half? Bang and boom. He threw 44 yards to Bryce Ford-Wheaton on the first play of the half, then on the second finished off the drive with a 31-yarder into the end zone to Ford-Wheaton, the receiver snaring each pass with 9.6 degree of difficulty dives.
“No question. We’re going to try take a lot of shots and score a lot of points,” he said, a smile creeping across is face.
“We’ve had a lot of deep balls this spring … and I mean a lot,” Prather admitted. “We haven’t come down with all of them, but we have been working the over-the-shoulder ball a lot. We know we can go up and catch it. Doing it over the back shoulder makes it a little harder on us, but it’s getting easier.”
Attitude, confidence, excitement. That’s what Harrell is building into his offense.
And everyone gets it.
Chad Scott, the running back coach who ran the winning Gold team, saw it as the third quarter drew to a close. The Gold team had the ball, fourth and 2 at the Blue 43.
“When the time ran out at the end of the third quarter, the guys come to the sideline, right? We got this true freshman at quarterback, Nicco Marchiol, just got here.,” Scott said.
Now, you would expect a true freshman to listen intently for the next play, maybe shrug his shoulders and accept the idea that with a whole quarter to go, it might even be smart to punt them deep.
Not Nicco Marchiol.
“He comes over and says ‘Coach, let’s go for it.’ All those guys, they go ‘Let’s go for it.’ They gravitate to that. In their minds they are invincible. So he gives us a play call to go for it.”
Marquan Rucker runs for a first down and, in the end, Rucker winds up scoring the game winning touchdown on an 11-yard run.
The 12,678 said to be there appreciated what they saw and the team appreciated them appreciating it, if you can unscramble that.
“You always have to remember the things people said,” guard James Gmiter said aftrer the game. “You have to keep your receipts. We talk about that all the time. It was kind of nerve-racking going out there in front of all those people. They gave us a hard time last year, but we’re a different unit now.”
They are different because of the new offense, which builds a new attitude.
And Fox may symbolize that attitude.
“He’s been productive. We put him on scholarship in the locker room, so those are some of the best moments. His parents came to the locker room, and he earned his scholarship. He’s been super productive,” Brown said. “The next step for him is he has to do it against the top guys. I’m really pleased for him. He’s a guy who got an opportunity, and he made the most of that opportunity during these 15 practices. He earned the scholarship.”
His teammates have noticed what the one-time Mohigan did.
“Preston?” Prather said when asked about him. “I remember Graeson (Malashevich) got his scholarship last spring and we’ve all been waiting for them to give one to Preston. We were all like, Coach Brown, what’s going on here. What are you waiting for?”
And when it came?
“We were all excited, for sure. If anyone deserved it, it was P-Fox. He’s very consistent catching balls like that. When he does it, it’s like ‘There goes Preston again.'”