WVU Spring Football Week One Observations
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Already in 2019 under the new administration of head football coach Neal Brown, we’ve seen more of spring football than we did in any of the past eight years. While that hasn’t yet included a great deal of 11-on-11 work, it has provided the ability for those of us choosing to take advantage of the open time to get a feel for how the new program operates, as well as watch players as they work on improvement of individual techniques.
If there’s one theme that has dominated the early workouts, it’s attention to detail. Coaches at every individual station are emphasizing technique improvement down to the smallest detail, which is clearly a carryover from Brown’s roots at Troy, where superior execution was used to make the difference against teams of the same, and sometimes superior, talent. Following are some examples and observations from early practices.
WVU, like many schools, uses large rolling yoga balls to simulate blockers coming at defenders during non-contact portions of practice. Linebackers coach Blake Seiler, running that particular station, emphasizes not only playing the ball away before it can get too close to the legs, but also the exact desired position of hands and arms, as well as dropping a leg to provide less of a target.
“Keep your hands together and elbows tight,” he instructs, demonstrating a V-formation with the heels of the hands under the thumbs touching. “Don’t spread your hands.”
This helps the defender play off the block with a strong initial punch, and protects the blocker from getting to the legs or lower body through the hands.
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There’s very little standing around at practice, even when certain position groups are being highlighted. For example, when punt team fundamentals were being taught, starting with small groups of three on either side of the center, those not involved weren’t inactive. Quarterbacks and skill position players were off working on their own fundamentals, while offensive and defensive linemen not involved in that play phase were similarly huddled and working with their assistant coaches.
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All of these different sessions makes communication from players to coaches even more important. Brown makes sure that happens with a headset that connects to the speaker systems on both the practice field and in the stadium so that he can announce each new session and where each group is supposed to be. That allows his instructions to be instantly heard, and gets everyone to where they need to be quickly.
Of course, just like the players, there’s an occasional mistake there too. Prior to one period, Brown announced an incorrect setup before quickly fixing it. Leaving the microphone open, he wasn’t afraid to poke fun at himself.
“That’s my first mistake of the day,” he announced. “Probably won’t be the last one.”
Add that ability to the long list of things that have made for an excellent start to his career at WVU. Granted, it’s still early, and no games have been played, but little vignettes like that display his very likable personality.
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Brown breaks up practice with some different quick competitions, including one where an offensive and defensive player race to find a ball in a stack of pads and return it to the start line, and another, which he calls the cage, which is a one-on-one match-up that is a test of strength, will and execution. In that one, each player attempts to drive the other back, with no slinging or disengagement allowed. To the winners go bragging rights, to the losers some push-ups or up-downs.
While fun, there’s also the development of competitive attitude in play.
Coaches aren’t afraid to jump into the fray with demonstrations. With a staff that skews a bit to the youngish side, it’s not uncommon to see Jahmile Addae or Jordan Lesley demonstrating techniques, or Travis Trickett jumping into coverage against his own receivers. While not unique, there are examples of this across the field, with coaches showing the desired action or correction, then watching to see how their lessons have been received.
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Some player thoughts:
Cornerback Dreshun Miller shows good strength and the ability to break on the ball quickly in one-on-ones. While no depth chart exists, and players are mixing and matching in team periods frequently, Miller looks to have the ability to challenge for a good bit of playing time.
Defensive lineman Taijh Alston has really good length, and showed good reactions in getting off the ball quickly during snap and initial punch work against blocking sleds.
Offensive lineman Junior Uzebu looks to have done a major reshaping of his body during his redshirt season. He is showing good mobility, and the hope is that he can provide some help, even though it’s still early in his career, at tackle.
Quarterback Austin Kendall gets the ball out quickly. Of course, that’s just step one, and comes against no opposition, so there is still much to watch and observe when play goes live in 11-on-11. The fundamentals are there, though, for him to be a good distributor of the ball.
Early candidates at punt return include Isaiah Esdale, TJ Simmons and Marcus Simms.
Josh Norwood, swung between safety and cornerback last year, has been at the latter position through the open portions of practice. Jovanni Stewart has been getting work at the spear position, which gives him a bit more pass coverage responsibilities, but also keeps him closer to the line than a traditional strong safety.
Center remains a very open competition. While Jake Buccigrossi will be out for the remainder of the spring, Chase Behrndt, Briason Mays, Adam Stilley and Kelby Wickline all have gotten pre-practice and individual drill snaps at the spot. With Wickline competing at tackle also, the hope is that one of the other trio will emerge to seize the job, although such a choice probably won’t be made this spring.