WVU Gold-Blue Spring Football Game Takeaways and Observations
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s just one game. Not really a game, even — just an extended scimmage and practice session that included special teams in only kicks and punts, with no coverage or tackles. However, the results of Saturday’s Gold-Blue game at West Virginia did provided several interesting points to note, and combined with our observations over every available minute of open practices in the weeks leading up to it, result in a reasonable picture of where the Mountaineer program is at this point in the Neal Brown era.
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The defensive line had the best day of any unit on the field, and that included both the Gold and Blue units in the split-squad design. Without question, those players like the more active tactics employed by defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, and used them to their advantage. With multiple alignments and pre-snap shuffling, the defensive front got consistent penetration in the backfield
Gold running backs were held to 60 yards on 23 carries, while Blue backs had 10 on 16 attempts. They were also evident in the pass rush, which recorded six sacks, albeit in a safe mode where proximity to a passer involved an early whistle. Expected stalwarts such as Reese Donahue, Darius Stills and Dante Stills did their thing, but the nice addition to the group has been the backups. Brenon Thrift, an afterthought on previous teams, has made some progress and could provide help at nose, and Jeffery Pooler has also shown good progress. Thrift had two tackles for loss, while Pooler was a disruptor, but the standout was Stone Wolfley, who broke through for two sacks and added another solo tackle.
“He was trying to set the spring game record,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning joked of Wolfley’s stack total.
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There shouldn’t be panic yet over the play of the quarterbacks or the offensive line, but it would be impossible to ignore them either. On the latter, the fact that Kelby Wickline didn’t play contributed to a distinct lack of continuity. Head coach Neal Brown noted that the team did not block well, but countered that with the note that the line had performed well in the run game earlier in the week. That’s a least a bit of a salve, but as offensive coordinator Matt Moore noted, consistency and depth development are critical tasks still to be completed. Moore singled out Michael Brown as a lineman that has progressed well this spring, but with Jacob Buccigrossi out over the same period, the ability to develop the cohesiveness necessary for effective play has been hampered.
Also playing into the showing was the difficulty the offensive line has had with the defensive line movement. While Koenning said the defense did not blitz, the shifting, stunts and loops from the defensive line and the bandit have challenged the line all spring.
“They make it very difficult to block,” said Colton McKivitz, who didn’t play in the second half. “Of the teams we play, TCU moves a lot, but now we move way more.”
Looking solely at statistics, Austin Kendall appeared efficient, completeing seven of 12 passes for 154 yards and a score. Two of those completions accounted for 100 of those yards, and while those shouldn’t be discounted, there wasn’t much in the way of mid-range passing to look at. WVU either went deep or ran the screen and short yardage game, and while some of that was by design, it’s also an area that has a long way to go before it can be a factor for the offense.
“You’ve got to threaten defenses vertically now,” said Brown of the deep balls, which were part of the practice plan for the day. “Guys in the secondary that are really well coached do a great job of reading routes and those types of things. Our guys are no different. I think we’re talented, we’ve got some talent in the secondary and I know we’re well-coached in the secondary, so we wanted to threaten the guys downfield and really give some one-on-one opportunities.”
WVU did come up with a couple of those, but also missed on some 50-50 chances. Brown confirmed that he had no problem with putting the ball up deep in those situations, and expects his receivers to come up with them as they develop more rapport with the quarterbacks. That makes summer work, unsupervised by coaches, even more important.
Jack Allison missed a couple of passes, but was also hampered by a lack of protection, just as he was in the Camping World Bowl in December. He did make a couple of nice adjustments in the pocket, and connected with Bush, Johns and Randy Fields for nice gains. Trey Lowe showed better passing ability than some might expect, and combined with his running skills, could give the Mountaineers a package of plays that could get him on the field in the fall. At Troy, Brown and quarterbacks coach Sean Reagan often played the backup a series or two in the first half, both to gain experience and to take advantage of differing skill sets, and it’s not difficult to see a similar scenario playing out this season.
In addition to the players singled out by Brown, Ricky Johns showed the ability to catch the ball in traffic, and Tevin Bush was used as might be expected, getting the ball on jet sweeps. They are just part of a large corps of receivers who show potential, but have not been huge performers on the field yet. Out of that group, which also includes James, Randy Fields, Dillon Spalding, Isaiah Esdale, Bryce Wheaton and Kwincy Hall, WVU must develop three or for players upon which it can depend.
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Don’t be concerned about the absence of tight ends on the day. Without question, WVU hid all of its plans for the position. Jovani Haskins and T.J. Banks will have the chance to be major parts of the offense, especially as the wide receivers work to learn the ropes.