MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia football coaches have stressed many things to their players since the end of last season.
The need to create more turnovers on defense, the need to be better on special teams, a desire to continue progressing on the offensive line, and developing quality depth at multiple position groups on the defensive side of the football have all been communicated, along with other talking points.
One thing has been emphasized more than anything else since the 2022 season came to an end: the need to be more physical.
“We’re intentional about being physical in this fall camp. We’ll tackle as much as they’ll allow us to,” fifth-year head coach Neal Brown said Wednesday.
This time of year, coaches can toss and turn at night over how physically demanding each practice needs to be the next day. They try to strike a balance between physically preparing their players for a rigorous 12-game regular season schedule, and keeping their players healthy for the duration of fall camp to have a full roster at the start of the season.
What’s enough? What’s too much?
Brown feels his team landed on the wrong side of that balance last year. This year, WVU coaches are ensuring their players are physically prepared for the 2023 campaign.
“We’re probably going to err on the side of being more physical. We didn’t do that a year ago, and I think it hurt us early in the year,” Brown said Saturday. “We didn’t tackle very well against Pitt. Our tackling against Kansas was atrocious.”
Seven practices into fall camp, and West Virginia has only conducted one that Brown has characterized as “light.” The others have featured as much contact as NCAA rules and guidelines allow. Players donned full pads for the first time on Tuesday, and breaking out the pads meant the level of physicality increased over the past two days.
The head coach noted back-to-back days of tackling drills, during which he saw growth.
Brown called the last three days of practice, going back to practice No. 5 of fall camp on Monday, a “grind.”
“For us, one of the big components for us to be successful is going to be our ability to be both mentally, and physically tough,” he added. “So the only thing I know how to do is go out and practice that.”
Bandits Jared Bartlett and Tyrin Bradley are two players who have embraced contact over the past few days. Fellow linebacker Lee Kpogba has, as well. Kpogba led West Virginia in tackles a year ago; his 92 stops were 26 more than any other player.
Brown describes Kpogba as a “seeker of contact.” Part of the responsibility for getting the rest of the players on the defense ready for an increased workload has fallen on the senior’s shoulder.
“He’s our unquestioned leader over there. And I thought he did a nice job of getting those guys going today,” said Brown. “I thought they were physical today, and he’s a big reason behind that.”
WVU’s attention to increased physicality isn’t solely centered on the defense. The Mountaineers are looking for offensive players to up their physicality, too.
Brown and offensive coordinator Chad Scott are preaching efficiency with players’ movements in order to break tackles. “No movement is good movement,” is the motto. The notion of running behind their pads, or with good posture and purpose in each step, has been insisted to ball carriers and pass-catchers alike.
“Both running backs and our big receivers are finishing plays well,” said Brown.
WVU players get a small reprieve, with no practice scheduled for Thursday, and Brown saying Friday’s team activities on the field won’t be as physically demanding. That will change on Saturday when West Virginia holds its first intra-squad scrimmage of fall camp.