The Film Room: West Virginia Mountaineers 2019 Gold-Blue Spring Game
Renovations and refreshes have been underway at many football facilities across the land since the end of the 2018 season, and West Virginia is no exception. Locker room renovations and lower-level behind-the-scenes work is underway, but we’re still waiting for those big screen and digital cut-up systems to make their way down to our cinder block-walled corner room behind the boiler. That’s OK, though – all those shiny new toys might take our attention away from the game itself. That, of course, is what we are here for, so pull up a folding metal chair, grab the clicker and run through some clips from West Virginia’s spring football game.
Our first play shows, as was in evidence several times during the game, a defensive lineman breaking through to put pressure on the quarterback or disrupt the timing of the play. As Austin Kendall evades, that, though, he has TJ Simmons (1) running across the defense about 15 yards downfield. Kendall doesn’t see him, and dumps the ball incomplete.
On one level, this is OK. Kendall avoids the rush and doesn’t try to force it to Martell Pettaway (32) who is well-covered by Josh Chandler (35). However, if Kendall picks up Simmons, it’s a 20-yard gain. Such fine lines are the distinction between average offenses and good ones, and the hope is that with more reps, and more familiarization, Kendall (and all of WVU’s QBs) will be able to take advantage of such situations without forcing the ball into coverage.
Up next is a staple of Vic Koenning’s defense – one that several offensive linemen, including Colton McKivitz, discussed during the spring. Watch Brenon Thrift (90) at the nose, and the loop he runs to get to the quarterback for a whistled sack. Such twists and loops are just one part of the new repertoire for the defensive front, which will show even more movement (including pre-snap) than it did in the spring game.
Granted, the action of the play here helps Thrift, as Jack Allison has to roll to his right to avoid inside pressure from bandit Exree Loe (17), which takes him right into Thrift’s path. However, Thrift comes through cleanly to complete the sack – something that Mountaineer fans hope to see more of in 2019.
Side note on Thrift … and perhaps a couple of other players on the team. Sometimes a change in scheme, or a new approach, unlocks new paths to better performance. If Thrift can keep building on his spring improvements, which were praised by coaches, that would be a huge plus for the defensive line.
Here’s one of the 50-50 balls that we asked head coach Neal Brown about postgame. Is he OK with such throws when the receiver isn’t clearly open? The answer was a qualified “yes,” with the note that the quarterback must know who the receiver is, the defensive back’s abilities, and judge the likelihood of winning that one-on-one battle. That will be an important outgrowth of summer work for the QBs and receivers. Who shows the ability to climb the ladder, or, as Sam James does here, screen the defender away from the ball?
Of course, the reverse for the defense is also in play. Which corners can battle with bigger receivers to knock those balls away, and win the reputation to not be tested in such situations?
Side note: That dashed white line is there for a reason, and the photographer who ignored it paid for it with a blind side hit from the official.
Learning all the ins and outs of the new defensive system is going to take some time, and feel free to apply the “old dogs learning new tricks” to me in that regard. With new positions, new responsibilities and a mixture of alignments and tactics from various systems, West Virginia’s 2019 defense is definitely a different animal.
This clip shows one of man variations of the base 4-2-5 alignment — assuming that in itself is a clear description. We’ve joked with Koenning that his defense could be described as “multiple” and that might fit as much as anything.
Here, spear JoVanni Stewart (9) is up almost on the line of scrimmage on the left, mirroring bandit Van Darius Cowan (32) on the right. The cat and free safeties are deep, with the corners playing two different techniques, one on the ball and one off. Will linebacker Josh Chandler is shaded out a bit to help against a short route from the slot receiver, leaving mike backer Dylan Tonkery (10) in the mid-field.
At the snap, watch how quickly cat safety Derrek Pitts (1) flies up to help jam the run. He’s looked at the formation, featuring a wing blocker and a back on his side, and quickly diagnoses the play. Even though he’s ten yards off the ball at the snap, he’s downhill in a hurry.
The initial win, however, goes to Stewart. He maintains outside leverage to string the play out, and occupies two blockers. That allows Pitts and Tonkery to run unimpeded to the play and hold Sam James, who took a jet sweep pass, to a one-yard gain.
As might be expected, there were a good number of two-back formations in the spring game, and those included a number of snaps for fullback (now called the S-Back) Logan Thimons. Here, he’s in a standard blocking set, but he sneaks out into the pattern as the defense only rushes five, and doesn’t overload his side. He’s open, but so too is Ricky Johns, who is quickly spotted by QB Jack Allison. Allison makes a good read, sees that the cornerback is playing off, and puts the ball in a safe spot for a nice gain. A bit of defensive confusion likely also contributed to the success of this play here, as both receivers on the right side weren’t stressed at any point in their patterns.
Neal Brown noted that he wanted to work on the running game in the second half, and he did so, particularly with Leddie Brown. The sophomore got the ball on three consecutive possessions on this drive, and recorded nice gains on each.
The keys on this play are the good blocks from Jovani Haskins and Sam James. Haskins (84) comes all the way across from the left side of the formation, but still gets an inside seal block, allowing Brown to get to the corner. Downfield, James gets piece of cornerback Hakeem Bailey, which clears the path for a few more yards.
A couple of plays later, the offense shows the same sort of action, but Austin Kendall keeps the ball and goes backside for a stroll into the end zone. These tactics are the ones that will likely power West Virginia’s offense in 2019 — at least early in the season.