The first bit of tackling, some situational work and some scrimmaging was held in Morgantown on Thursday, and by the conclusion, West Virginia coach Neal Brown had some highlights and lowlights to discuss in front of the media.
And according to Brown, some of the most important work of the day wasn’t done on offense or defense.
With around half of the practice being full contact and with the team venturing into Milan Puskar Stadium for the first time this fall, Thursday was certainly another benchmark on the way toward the Mountaineers’ season opener at Pitt on Sept. 1.
“It was definitely our most intense work,” Brown said. “Everybody on the roster got reps and we really took a hard look at our young guys that are athletic enough to play on special teams.”
Brown stressed the importance of those special-teams battles, especially with an influx of young players that he said have helped make this year’s roster the most athletic in his four-year tenure as head coach.
“This is by far the most athletic team we’ve had. What I mean by that is the most able bodies, the most speed and guys that can make plays in an athletic position,” Brown said. “So today we did some special-teams competition drills with just those guys. If you see us in spring, it’s more of a spring practice drill to get a feel for who are best special-teams guys, but we have so many of those guys that are new or young that we did those drills today and I’m probably as eager to watch that as anything offensively or defensively because it’s going to give us a key insight on who’s ready to play.”
While Brown harped on special teams, there were plenty of offensive and defensive standouts as well. Among them were starting running back Tony Mathis, backup ball carriers Jaylen Anderson and CJ Donaldson, linebackers Lance Dixon and Lee Kpogba, defensive lineman Dante Stills and secondary members Marcis Floyd, Hershey McLaurin, Charles Woods, Rashad Ajayi, Wesley McCormick and Davis Mallinger.
There were also areas Brown targeted which needed to improve.
“Wideouts — I have high expectations for them and I thought they were OK. Just OK,” Brown said. “Which is not going to be good enough for us to be where we want to be. I do think that Reese Smith had a good day today and he’s been as consistent as anybody through fall camp. He’s playing faster. He made a couple of really nice plays down the field.”
Brown didn’t give any feedback on the performance of the team’s four quarterbacks — JT Daniels, Garrett Greene, Will “Goose” Crowder and Nicco Marchiol — saying he needed to watch film to give accurate analysis. He added that all four received an equal number of drives.
As preseason camp winds down toward the end of week two, culminating in Saturday’s Fan Day, Brown said the picture has become a bit clearer on positional battles but didn’t cite any of them.
“We’ve got a pretty good idea of the main pieces that are going to play,” Brown said. “For a lot of it, it’s not as much as the entire first group. The way the game is played now, defensively, it’s so personnel-dictated and you rotate your defensive line. It’s about figuring out defensively who’s going to be the group you’re going to play and then, offensively, what’s your depth look like? How many receivers are you going to play in the game? How many running backs are you going to play? How many tight ends? What’s the rotation look like on the offensive line?”
INJURY UPDATES: Brown gave a couple of injury updates, starting with tight end Mike O’Laughlin, who was lost for the season last year during the team’s 38-31 win over Iowa State with a leg injury. Brown said O’Laughlin’s prospects at playing in the season opener are not clear.
“Too early to tell,” Brown said. “We’ll see how this week goes. He’s doing some group work, he hasn’t done any 11-on-11 yet. We’re not going to rush him. When he’s ready, he’s ready. We’d love to have him, he’d love to play, but we’re only going to do it if it’s in the best interest for him.”
Left guard James Gmiter missed Thursday’s practice but Brown said the ailment isn’t serious and estimated that Gmiter would return early next week.