Mountaineers Ready to Play (For Now)
“It’s been a tough last five months.” A few minutes into his press conference to open Fall camp, Head Coach Neal Brown comes out and said what we have all been thinking. Those months have invited many questions. As Coach Brown said in a recent video shared through the team’s social media channels, those problems are myriad. We’ve been “dealing with a worldwide pandemic; have the most political tension that we’ve ever had in my lifetime; [and] the most social unrest that we’ve ever had in my lifetime.” Heavy worldwide geopolitical issues face all of us. But, at the end of the day, Brown assures fans that the Mountaineers are ready to play.
— WVU Football (@WVUfootball) August 9, 2020
Get Well, Get Ready
Over the past five months, Brown and his staff have primarily met with players and each other through Zoom meetings and FaceTime. Workouts have been socially distanced, but Brown confessed, “it’s hard to see what people are going through on FaceTime.” A family-man first, Brown admits he spent extra time with his wife and children that he would never trade. But he also said that the best feeling of his entire career came when the team got back together.
He told fans that he was overwhelmed “seeing those guys get back to a routine.” After all, Brown continued, the athletes “love to be out there competing and playing football and they’re doing it.” The players, he said, “have real hope and real joy in playing.” Given the blue collar mentality Brown cultivates, the attitudes certainly offer promise for the upcoming season.
That said, the Mountaineers, like most teams, faced early setbacks to their OTAs. The football team suffered a string of positive COVID tests to begin, leaving many players required to quarantine and sit out workouts. As a result, the team adopted the motto “get well, get ready,” through the early Summer OTAs.
Stay Well, Get Ready
Refocusing the Mission
Now that the team has zero active COVID cases, Brown changed the team’s mission to “stay well … and get ready.” Brown said that the team is going to “get ready to play until somebody tells us that we’re not going to.” Indeed, the team will not go down without a fight. And considering the team is “climbing … to be the most improved team in the country” this year, that relentlessness will come in handy.
This past Monday, Brown told the media that “our team wants to play, [and] our coaches want to coach.” He admitted to staying up much later than usual the night before as he witnessed the “We Want to Play” movement on social media. Brown said, “a lot of our guys were part of that movement.”
As for the staying well part of that mission, the Mountaineers leave no precaution unexplored. The staff has been “in constant contact with NFL teams” to develop their COVID safety procedures, and, word among several in the business says that the Mountaineers are handling these procedures as well as, if not better than, any team in the country.
The team runs split-squad practices based more on living arrangements than depth chart. That way, they can limit new transmission sources as much as possible. The team performs its strength and conditioning training, including weightlifting, outdoors in the concourse around Milan Puskar Stadium. The team eats meals outdoors, too.
The team’s helmets, according to Brown, feature “splash guards and shields,” and players play with “gators around their necks” to provide an additional face-covering. Brown encourages fan that “we believe in the protocols we have in place to keep our players and staff as safe as possible.” Brown also makes clear that players “don’t have to play” as they “have the opportunity to opt out and remain on scholarship.”
Players Showing Up
The performances of several players in the early going encourage Brown and his staff’s optimism. Brown spoke highly of both veteran quarterbacks Austin Kendall and Jarret Doege. After Monday’s practice, he say “both quarterbacks looked sharped today.” Brown also said he looks forward to what true freshman Garrett Greene can do.
Brown also mentioned a player we talked about two seasons in a row, Alec Sinkfield. According to Brown, Sinkfield “showed up in OTAs … and had several bright moments at practice” this week. As for the receivers, Brown mentioned that both Bryce Wheaton and Sam James made several big plays downfield. He added that Sam Brown is developing nicely and had some great moments.
On defense, Brown told media that Josh Chandler and Jared Bartlett both developed well in the off-season. He mentioned that Alonzo Addae was very active around the ball. Brown added that the safeties showed better coverage, allowing the defense to run multiple looks. For the new transfers, Brown thought Bryce Brand looked sharp. He also observed that Arizona transfer Scottie Young made several plays during the week. Brown likes Young’s leadership, saying he “plays with a lot of feel.”
Over the week, the Mountaineers also added prized senior linebacker transfer Tony Fields from Arizona. Fields should shore up a unit somewhat lacking in depth with solid veteran leadership. Fields started three seasons at Arizona, recording 287 tackles (17 for loss), eight-and-a-half sacks, and two interceptions.
Big 12 Ready to Play
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers’ hopes to play the 2020 season received a boost when the conference announced its intent to play. The Mountaineers begin their season at home against Eastern Kentucky on September 12. Eastern Kentucky, however, must clear WVU’s COVID protocols first. Whether they can remains in question as they faced controversy concerning their safety measures earlier this summer.
Then, conference play begins on September 26 with a trip to face the Cowboys. The Mountaineers, who fought hard against the Cowboys last season, look to put their five-game losing streak to Oklahoma State behind them. That challenge may hinge on whether and how much the offensive line improved over the offseason.
Still, questions remain for the Mountaineers. How will the return of students to campus impact the team’s COVID numbers? Will nationwide trends compel a shutdown? How much pressure will the Big Ten and Pac 12 exert on the other three Power Five conferences to delay or forego the season? If the Big 12 does play, will the decision by those two conferences cause some unexpected transfers? If so, would Brown disrupt his locker room to add a star or two at positions of need? Can the Mountaineers meet their goal of becoming the most improved team in the country? Like many other nationwide questions over the last five months, we anxiously await the answers.