MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — An open week in a college football schedule is a time for self-improvement, both for those who are seeing significant game action on Saturdays and those who are more in the developmental phase of their career.
West Virginia’s football team has 16 first-year scholarship players. Of those, 14 are listed as having seen game action already this season, but half of them have participated in just one contest. Thus they still are very much alive for a redshirt, which entails they play in no more than four games in a season.
According to WVU’s participation chart, the only true freshman to play in every game this season is wide receiver Kaden Prather. The 6-foot-4, 210-pound native of Montgomery Village, Maryland, also got the starting nod at Baylor, though his only two receptions so far this year came against Long Island.
Offensive tackle Wyatt Milum is the only other true freshman besides Prather to earn a start this season, as the 6-foot-6, 291-pound Spring Valley product was on the field for the first series against Texas Tech. He suffered a leg injury midway through that game against the Red Raiders, though, and that ailment kept him out for the rest of the contest against TTU and all of the Baylor game, the only contest this year in which he has not played.
Besides Prather and Milum, other true freshmen who have seen action in multiple games this year include safety Aubrey Burks (five games), running back Justin Johnson (five games), cornerback Andrew Wilson-Lamp (four games), safety Saint McLeod (three games), safety Davis Mallinger (two games), quarterback Goose Crowder (two games) and defensive lineman Edward Vesterinen (two games).
Neal Brown’s program holds a weekly intra-squad scrimmage, which it calls “Monday Night Football,” for those young developmental players who don’t see much game action on Saturdays.
That scrimmage work was expanded this off week.
“We’ll go today, tomorrow and Thursday,” Brown said on Tuesday of the scrimmage plans for his younger players. “We’ll get them a bunch of reps.”
One of those taking advantage of Monday Night Football, according to Brown, is quarterback Goose Crowder. The 6-foot-1, 208-pounder from Gardendale, Alabama, did get a series of action against LIU earlier this year, where he completed both his pass attempts for 28 yards. Crowder has shown promise, said Brown, though he’s still likely ticketed to redshirt this year.
“Goose is a guy who is coming along,” stated the head coach. “From a leadership standpoint, he’s probably got as good of skills as anyone in our program. He’s added positive weight over the last nine months since getting here in January. The game is starting to slow down for him. He’s had two really good Mondays in a row.”
WVU brought in two scholarship running backs as part of its class of 2021 — Justin Johnson (5-10, 196) and Jaylen Anderson (6-0, 215).
Johnson has seen action this season in all but the Virginia Tech game, and he got opportunities to carry the ball against LIU (10 rushes for 42 yards) and Baylor (eight rushes for 18 yards, plus one reception for two yards).
“At running back, Justin Johnson is a guy who is playing,” said Brown of the Edwardsville, Illinois, native who is battling for the No. 2 spot at the running back position. “He had a couple really nice runs (against Baylor). He missed some protection issues that he can’t do, but he’ll continue to improve, and we’ll keep working him hard.”
As for Anderson, it took a little extra time compared to his classmates to get academically approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse, but he was allowed to enroll at WVU in mid-September.
“Jaylen is just now starting to practice,” explained Brown of the Perry, Ohio, product, who will almost certainly redshirt this season. “He was out of shape when he first got here, and then he was sick last week and missed some days. He’ll practice this week, but I don’t have a big enough body of work to comment on him.”
West Virginia has two tight ends in this class, Victor Wikstrom and Treylan Davis, both of whom have played in one game so far this year. Each is likely ticketed for a redshirt.
“The tight ends, Victor and Treylan, they aren’t ready right now, but they are very similar to what a lot of the league is playing with as far as blockers and guys who can get out in the flats and do those things,” said Brown. “I think they’ll be able to help us next year.”
WVU had just two offensive line signees in the class of 2021. Milum is already part of the rotation up front, and he could very well get additional starts at right tackle as the season continues. The second O-line signee, Tomas Rimac (6-6, 298), is one Brown likes but is still in the developmental stage.
“Offensive line-wise, Tomas Rimac is a guy who isn’t ready to play right now, but we do think he will in the future,” said the coach of the Brunswick, Ohio, product. “He’s progressing well. He’s really learning how to pass protect for the first time.”
Brown also mentioned redshirt freshman offensive tackle Ja’Quay Hubbard. The 6-6, 310-pounder transferred from Virginia to West Virginia in the summer of 2020. He didn’t see any game action last fall but is starting to get some reps this season, including a number of snaps at Baylor.
“I’ve talked about Ja’Quay Hubbard before,” said Brown. “He was really heavy (listed at 335) when he got here, but he’s lost a bunch of weight and is gaining his strength back. I like the way he plays with effort. He just lacks some strength right now, but he’ll play for us down the road.”
Freshmen defensive linemen Brayden Dudley (6-2, 242), Edward Vesterinen (6-3, 270) and Hammond Russell (6-3, 287) each have gotten some game reps so far this season, though none have yet eclipsed the mark that would keep them from redshirting.
“Hammond Russell is a guy who has played spot duty,” noted Brown. “We like what he’s doing. He’s done a nice job on scout team.”
At linebacker, Ja’Corey Hammett (6-0, 196) has been restricted in practice as he continues to recover from a knee injury he suffered last season at Miami Northwestern (Fla.) High School.
WVU has used four true freshmen defensive backs in games this season. Any or all of them could exceed the redshirt limit.
“Aubrey Burks played 20 snaps or something like that on Saturday. He did a nice job,” Brown said of the 5-foot-10, 201-pound safety. “We’ll continue to grow him, because he needs to play.
“I think Saint McLeod is a guy we’re going to take a hard look at because he may be able to help us now,” added Brown of the 5-10, 209-pound safety.
Mallinger (6-0, 188) and Wilson-Lamp (6-1, 174) were primarily wide receivers in high school. They both enrolled at WVU in January and began transitioning to safety and cornerback, respectively.
“Davis Mallinger has been traveling (with the team to road games),” said Brown. “He played seven to 10 snaps on Saturday. He can really run, but he’s still learning how to play defense. He’ll help us on special teams. We’re going to continue to play him, and he’ll help us, especially on special teams. He plays the game fast.
“Wilson-Lamp is doing a good job on special teams,” added the WVU coach. “He’s still new at corner, so there’s a bit of a transition process there.”
Things ultimately could change, but it appears WVU is likely going to play at least seven true freshmen — Prather, Johnson, Milum, Burks, McLeod, Mallinger and Wilson-Lamp — above the four-game redshirt limit, with Russell also a possibility as well.
Of course, you know what they say about the best-laid plans …