True freshmen have often been key pieces for the Mountaineer football team, and that continues to be the case in the Neal Brown era.
Last season 10 true freshmen saw snaps in a game for West Virginia, and six of those were used in more than four games, thus foregoing their redshirt – cornerback Nicktroy Fortune, defensive lineman Jordan Jefferson, wide receiver Ali Jennings, safety Kerry Martin, safety Tykee Smith and wide receiver Winston Wright. Four other true freshmen – linebacker Jared Bartlett, running back Tony Mathis, corner back Tae Mayo and safety Naim Muhammed – also saw action in 2019 but didn’t exceed the four-game threshold and thus were able to redshirt.
This season, with the NCAA allowing a carte blanche redshirt to all players, keeping within the four-game redshirt limit doesn’t matter, so Brown can be more free with his use of true freshmen.
To this point he’s used 11 of them in games – wide receiver Sam Brown, linebacker Lanell Carr, safety Jairo Faverus, quarterback Garrett Green, tight end Charles Finley, offensive lineman Zach Frazier, defensive lineman Akheem Mesidor, cornerback Daryl Porter, linebacker Taurus Simmons, wide receiver Reese Smith and offensive lineman Jordan White.
That still leaves six scholarship true freshmen who had not played in WVU’s first three games of the 2020 season – defensive end Sean Martin, offensive lineman Chris Mayo, cornerback David Vincent-Okoli, wide receiver Devell Washington, running back A’Varius Sparrow and linebacker Eddie Watkins.
“So, this class is still to be determined,” stated Brown, whose club is 2-1 thus far in 2020. “Are there some guys that are showing up and playing really well on Saturdays? Yes. Are there some guys who have shown some flashes who will have even bigger roles as their body can take what’s going on and as they get more mature and more ingrained in the system? Yes. But I think it’s too early to tell on a lot of them just based on the circumstances.”
Those circumstances revolve mainly around restrictions in the spring and summer due to the coronavirus pandemic. Brown admits he hasn’t gotten an accurate feel for how good this group of true freshmen can be because of those limitations.
“The tough thing for this class is they didn’t go through the normal process,” WVU’s coach said of the class, which includes three junior college transfers and 17 others from the prep ranks.
“Usually a freshman class comes in in June, and they have eight weeks to get ready for that first season. They get a feel for the process. You spend a lot of time together as a freshman class, and you develop a lot of chemistry. You learn about the culture of the program and you understand about what’s expected of you. You go through the workouts, get to learn the base of the offense or defense. You spend time with the older guys in the player-led practices and learn from them. By the time fall camp rolls around, you understand the expectations.
“This group never had that, though. They were in and out of quarantine, isolated,” added Brown. “Then when we get into fall camp, we were in split groups. The structure of knowing what to do has been tough to learn for those freshmen. I’m sure it’s the same way across all of college football. I feel for them, because it’s not a normal progression.
“Now that we’re in the season, the routine has been established. It’s competition level in practice, and typically you’re playing against older guys. The 17- or 18-year-old is playing against the 22- or 23-year-old, and that’s a big difference in terms of strength and size and speed and such things.”
While 11 true freshmen have played in at least one contest in 2020, only three have seen action all three games so far this season – Smith, Mesidor and Frazier.
A slot receiver, Smith caught four passes in the opener against Eastern Kentucky and one more at Oklahoma State. He also saw action against Baylor but didn’t record a reception.
A 6-foot-2, 268-pound defensive tackle from Ottawa, Canada, Mesidor has quickly become part of WVU’s d-line rotation. He has a total of nine tackles and two sacks in the first three games.
“Mesidor has played as much as any freshman in the program,” noted Brown. “He’s explosive and really loves football. He doesn’t just like it; he loves it. He loves to compete, loves to practice. He’s hungry to learn. We played him more on the edge this week (against BU). That’s where he’s more comfortable, because it’s where he played in the past. His best game was against Baylor (four tackles and a sack). I like the way he plays and prepares.”
While Mesidor is certainly a nice addition to WVU’s defensive line, Frazier has quickly become an integral part of the Mountaineer offensive line, starting at center in game one and at left guard in game three. In between, at Oklahoma State, he did not start but saw considerable action, rotating in at both center and guard.
His accomplishments are even more impressive when you realize that the Fairmont, West Virginia, native is the first true freshman offensive lineman to start a game at WVU in more than 40 years.
Frazier was actually slated to start at center against Baylor, but after first-team left guard James Gmiter was ruled out following a positive COVID test the day before the Oct. 3 contest, West Virginia did some juggling, and instead of center, Frazier got the start in place of Gmiter.
“I thought Zach Frazier, making his second start, this time at left guard, and hadn’t practiced there a ton, did a nice job against Baylor,” Brown said after the 27-21 double overtime victory over the Bears. “He played left guard some against Oklahoma State, but got most of his reps at center.
“He made a couple mistakes (against BU), but he’s really physical and did a nice job in the run game,” continued the Mountaineers’ second-year head coach. “He got caught a couple of times by twists and blitzes, but that was just because he hadn’t had much practice time at guard. Other than that, he did well.”
Frazier, Mesidor and Smith are quickly jumping to the head of the class. The other members are adapting to the Power 5 level after an offseason that didn’t give them a lot of prep time.