MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A common theme has permeated West Virginia through the early portion of the season – the need to become a more physical offensive football team.
“We have to get more physical up front. That’s the challenge for us this week,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown, as his 1-1 squad gets ready to host No. 15 Virginia Tech (2-0) Saturday at noon on FS1. “We have to practice being physical. We have to demand it. There were times we were better (against LIU than in the opener against Maryland). Our footwork was better at tackle, though that’s still a work in progress. And in terms of physicality, we just have to practice that way.”
All football teams strive to be physical, but it takes not just desire but also attention to detail, explained West Virginia offensive coordinator Gerad Parker.
“When you are trying to develop a more physical approach, it’s like my dad telling me when I was young, ‘Go play hard, son.’ Well, I took that, if I was on the basketball court, to go run and jump after the ball, play all over the floor, make sure I had stuff on my elbows. Well, I played hard, but it was meaningless effort,” noted Parker, who grew up in Louisa, Kentucky, which lies just across the Tug Fork River from Fort Gay, West Virginia. “You want to play hard, you want to be physical, but it has to have purpose. What I mean is there are a lot of things that go into playing hard and playing well. It’s playing with great pad level, trusting your footwork and your fundamentals. Those are the things we have to do. Our guys are owning that. We’re in a good place of owning that process. We have to take good steps each week to play winning football.”
WVU junior running back Leddie Brown averaged 101.0 rushing yards per game last season, but he’s managed just 52.0 per game through the first two contests of 2021.
“Leddie is a great player, and we have to make sure we honor that with ways to get him room,” explained Parker. “Then, of course, Leddie has to do his own part and making sure when we get him that room, he gets there.”
After averaging a Big 12-worst 73.2 rushing yards per game as a team in 2019, which was the first season of the Neal Brown era at WVU, the Mountaineers improved that number to 135.1 rushing yards per game last season, which was the eighth-best mark in the Big 12. In the first two games of 2021, though, West Virginia’s ground attack has seemingly taken a step backward. It managed just 48 yards on 21 rushes in the 30-24 season-opening loss at Maryland, and while it posted 198 yards on the ground in game two, that came against LIU, a sub-par FCS foe. And WVU’s rushing performance in its 66-0 victory over the Sharks actually wasn’t as impressive as its final numbers, if you look deeper inside the stats. West Virginia quarterbacks Garrett Greene (98 yards on 14 carries) and Jarret Doege (-3 yards on three carries) accounted for 95 of those 198 rushing yards against LIU. WVU’s running backs netted 103 yards on 37 attempts, which works out to 2.78 yards per carry. Against an FCS foe, it’s not a number that pleases any of the Mountaineers. And with the battle against Virginia Tech coming up this Saturday against a Hokie defense that is allowing 106.5 rushing yards per game, finding improvement on the ground won’t be easy for WVU. Still, it’s a necessity. The Mountaineers are 8-0 during Brown’s time as the program’s head coach when they rush for at least 100 yards and 4-12 when falling below that mark.
“It’s critical that we become more physical,” stated Parker. “We’re playing a good football team this week that has hung its hat on the ability to (play physical) throughout the test of time. You can see that through their program and through their defense. They’ve done a great job and are off to a great start. For us to be able to compete, we have to match that in this football game. We have to continue to take steps.”
Those steps to become more physical, and thus open room to run, are part of a process.
“How do you get better?” reiterated Parker, who is in his second season as WVU’s offensive coordinator. “Young guys think you work all this time from essentially January to now to get better. I think some people mistake that once the season is here, so you just go play. But you have to getter better now each week, too.
“So, what do we have to do to get better? You have to locate those areas. Game one told us some things we have to address right now, and us being physical is an important part of that.
“It’s not just about being physically tough, though,” continued Parker. “It’s about meaningful contact, footwork and all those things that allow you to be physical and successful. That’s the first step, assuring the fundamentals that allow you to play physical and play well. That’s the key for us to take the next step. If we own that, we can pair those things up and match them together.”