Second-year West Virginia coach Neal Brown concluded preseason training camp Tuesday night under the lights inside Milan Puskar Stadium with some heavy special teams work.
In fact, close to half of the practice involved working all five units in live situations with officials on hand.
Brown mentioned last Saturday after his team’s second full-scale scrimmage that he was unhappy with how his special teams performed.
“We got a lot of really good work in,” Brown said Tuesday evening. “We are a little bit behind on special teams, and we knew that by doing the split squad. Mentally, we know what to do but as far as reactions and full coverage work we are not where we need to be.
“I feel okay about our protection unit and punt,” he added. “We’ve still got to clean up some things in coverage. Kickoff, I think we’ve got the makings of a really good unit, and we showed that tonight, but both return units we’ve got to get better and those are hard.
“Punt return and kickoff return are both really difficult to execute so we’ve got to continue to figure out personnel wise who is the best fit. Then we’ve got to work it – work a bunch of live opportunities.”
For years, punt return was West Virginia’s Achilles heel. Numerous times punts were either not fielded or bobbled leading to costly turnovers or poor field position.
Consistently catching punts in the air appears to be Brown’s No. 1 objective coming out of the gate. Sure-handed redshirt freshman Graeson Malashevich from Ceredo, West Virginia, was among those out there catching a lot of the punts on Tuesday night.
Brown has established two full special teams units, a clear illustration of the importance he places on that aspect of play.
“We had two scout teams going and a one and a two for each unit,” he explained. “We wanted to get all of our ones and twos work with all five: field goal, punt, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return.”
In addition to special teams, Brown also worked extensively on the downfield passing game Tuesday evening. That was another area he wasn’t too thrilled with during last Saturday’s scrimmage.
Sophomore Bryce Ford-Wheaton made two long catches during situational work and Sean Ryan managed to haul in a 50-50 ball in the end zone later in the practice.
“Bryce (Ford-)Wheaton had a nice day and Sean Ryan made a really nice play on a go-ball, but we need to continue to work on it,” Brown noted. “We are going to have to hit some big plays and I think if you look at the teams that are really good on offense they hit big plays down the field.”
Brown has not said a lot during camp about his quarterback play and when he has been asked about it, his comments have been somewhat tempered.
Austin Kendall started the first nine games last year and completed 61.5 percent of his pass attempts for 1,989 yards with 12 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Kendall was injured during in the Iowa State loss and eventually gave way to Jarret Doege, who led the Mountaineers to impressive late-season road victories at Kansas State and TCU.
Doege connected on 65.8 percent of his pass attempts for 818 yards with seven touchdowns and three picks.
Those two are the quarterbacks of the present. The quarterback of the future is true freshman Garrett Greene from Tallahassee, Florida. Greene has looked impressive so far during the two team scrimmages going against the No. 3 defense.
Whoever Brown publicly reveals as his starting quarterback, he will be throwing to a vastly improved wide receiver corps that possesses perhaps the best depth on the team.
Ford-Wheaton had a really solid camp, as had sophomore Winston Wright Jr., who demonstrates some elusiveness when he gets the football out in space.
Ryan, senior T.J. Simmons and junior Isaiah Esdale are proven players, while youngster Reese Smith from Danville, Kentucky, has shown an ability to catch just about any pass that comes his way.
Z-receivers Sam James and Ali Jennings are known performers, and when Savannah, Georgia, resident Sam Brown has had opportunities at Z the true freshman has shined as well.
Sophomore tight end Mike O’Laughlin and sophomore T.J. Banks have been getting nearly all of the tight end reps.
An offensive area where West Virginia has made clear improvement is running the football. Up was the only place it could go.
Last year was the worst rushing performance by a Mountaineer team since 1968 when Jim Carlen’s ground game managed to generate just 993 yards and average 2.3 yards per rush in 10 games.
In 2019, the 12-game figure was 879 yards and only 2.6 yards per attempt. Brown and his offensive staff have worked extremely hard on the ground game during preseason camp.
The three mainstays up front have been senior center Chase Behrndt, sophomore left guard James Gmiter and senior right guard Michael Brown. Junior John Hughes has been getting a lot of work at right tackle while sophomore Junior Uzebu is battling redshirt freshman Brandon Yates at left tackle.
Perhaps the team’s most valuable offensive lineman right now is sophomore Briason Mays, who is capable of playing all five positions and has during camp. The Bolivar, Tennessee, resident has gotten lots of work recently at right tackle and right guard, and Brown is not ruling him out as a starter.
Another youngster to watch down the road is a guy from right down the road – Fairmont Senior true freshman center Zach Frazier, who has been working predominantly with the twos.
Overall, the entire offensive line is in a much better place now than it was 12 months ago.
“I’m not saying we’ve arrived yet, but we’ve made some progress,” Brown said of West Virginia’s running game. “I think our O-line has more cohesiveness right now than we had at any point last year and that’s not a knock on those guys last year, I just think the Zoom meetings and the communication and all those type of things have really helped so I’m encouraged with where we’re at.”
Leddie Brown has been West Virginia’s most consistent running back during camp, but sophomore Tony Mathis Jr. has run the ball effectively and junior Alec Sinkfield has also shown flashes.
True freshman A’varius Sparrow performed well during last Saturday’s scrimmage against the threes and also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
That’s four pretty good ball carriers right there.
“I like our running back room,” Brown noted.
On the other side of the ball, the defense will revolve around the Stills brothers, Darius and Dante, up front. Darius was recently named a preseason All-American by CBS Sports and was a preseason All-Big 12 First Team choice.
Darius spent a good portion of last Saturday’s scrimmage in the backfield and is probably the Mountaineers’ hand-on-the-ground pass rusher since Julian Miller, now a graduate assistant coach for Brown.
Quay Mays, Jordan Jefferson and redshirt freshman Jalen Thornton have done some nice things during camp, as has true freshman Akheem Mesidor, who Brown says is already good enough to see immediate playing time.
Mesidor possesses exceptional get-off and should provide a nice complement to the Stills brothers. True freshman Sean Martin from Bluefield is another youngster with a bright future.
Edge guys VanDarius Cowan and Jeffery Pooler Jr. have performed well, as has Jared Bartlett and Tavis Lee.
Junior defensive end Taijh Alston has been unable to practice during preseason camp and likely won’t be available until later this year.
The linebacking corps features three experienced players – Josh Chandler-Semedo, Dylan Tonkery and spear Tykee Smith.
Smith really came on toward the end of last year and that’s carried over into the fall and Tonkery has been a player Brown has mentioned consistently during camp.
The linebackers also got a big boost recently when Arizona senior Tony Fields transferred before the start of fall camp and is expected to receive his immediate waiver to play this season.
Fields’ athleticism has been evident since his arrival.
“He can really run,” Brown said. “He’s the fastest linebacker we have and he’s learning what to do, but he’s definitely going to be a factor for us.”
Will linebacker Exree Loe has performed well and made some outstanding plays in the last scrimmage.
The secondary has featured junior Dreshun Miller at one corner and true freshman Daryl Porter Jr. at the other corner position, but sophomore Nicktroy Fortune recently returned to camp following the unfortunate passing of his mother and has been making up for lost time.
Tae Mayo and Jackie Matthews are two other strong candidates at corner.
Senior Alonzo Addae has been getting the majority of the reps at free safety while senior Sean Mahone has made lots of plays at the cat safety position.
Junior Noah Guzman has had his moments as well.
Senior place kicker Evan Staley and Troy transfer punter Tyler Sumpter were probably the two most consistent specialists during camp.
Brown conceded there will be lots of new faces sprinkled in with the veteran players when the Mountaineers hit the field on Sept. 12 against Eastern Kentucky.
“We are going to line up and play young guys week one and we expect there to be some bumps in the road, but we really like the talent although we are only going to play the young guys we feel are ready,” Brown said.
Overall, is his team ready to play some football?
And, more importantly, does he feel good about where his team is at roughly a week-and-a-half away from the opener?
“Yeah, I feel better, but I don’t know if any coach feels great about where they are at,” he said. “We’ve got some work to do, but we’re getting to a point where our guys are getting tired of going against each other.”
Today is an off day for the team and tomorrow it will begin Eastern Kentucky work.
Neal Brown’s first radio show appearance will be Thursday night from 6 to 8 p.m. on Mountaineer Sports Network radio affiliates throughout the state.
He will undoubtedly have much more to say about his team then.