Previewing the West Virginia Spring Game
As we normally do, we conclude our Mountaineers’ Spring preview series by previewing the annual Gold-Blue Game. We started our series by looking at the team’s overarching goals. Then, we covered the offensive position groups, including the pass catchers. After that, we focused on the defense, all the way through the secondary. Now, we are previewing the West Virginia Spring Game. After last year’s hiatus, the annual tradition returns this Saturday, April 24, beginning at 1:00 p.m ET. Fans can watch the game live on ESPN+.
Points to Click: Questions on Offense
Entering this Spring, Head Coach Neal Brown identified several areas that the team would highlight this Spring. He wanted the team to display better toughness and discipline, particularly. Specifically, to the offense, he looked for improvement in four critical areas. Brown sought more toughness up front. He sought more mental toughness and consistency with the receivers. Brown looked for his running backs to develop depth behind Leddie Brown. Finally, Brown looked for improvement out of his quarterbacks.
Toughness Up Front?
We have written at length about the staff’s approach to revamping the offensive line and how the depth chart might look. After several more practices, we have a much clearer idea of what the line might look like Saturday. By all appearances, it looks like the line received the message loud and clear. The first and second units should show improved toughness and discipline from the opening whistle.
We anticipate a first-team front featuring Brandon Yates, James Gmiter, Zach Frazier, Jordan White, and Doug Nester, in order from left tackle to right tackle. On average, the first unit measures six-feet-four-inches and 306 pounds.
The second team, of course, features plenty of talent itself. Notably, Ja’Quay Hubbard remained limited through most, if not all, of Spring, so we are not sure whether we will see him in action. If he does, we would likely see him on the second team due to limited reps. If not, we expect to see some combination of Tariq Stewart, Parker Moorer, John Hughes, Donavan Beaver, Chris Mayo, Nick Malone, and Tyler Connolly rotating for the second team.
Given the relative experience on the first team especially, it is anticipated that the focus on discipline will become particularly apparent. Expecting fewer procedure penalties and better blocking mechanics is certainly not unreasonable for this unit.
Wide Receiver Improvement?
The Mountaineers have rotated plenty of bodies across its receiving and tight end slots. We are not sure whether a “best four” have emerged just yet, but we can take an educated guess as to those who will feature most heavily. The staff consistently calls Bryce Ford-Wheaton‘s number. Sam James still weighs heavily in the group. Winston Wright was perhaps the most consistent option last season. Isaiah Esdale will surprise plenty. Sam Brown showed flashes last season as a true freshman and appears to have taken the next step forward. Finally, true freshman Kaden Prather, who has made plays consistently all Spring according to the staff, should make a few big-time plays early.
The group no doubt has room to grow from last season where dropped passes remained a consistent point of criticism. Unfortunately, practice itself will not tell the story. Brown expressed his own surprise many times throughout the season given how consistently they caught in practice. The Spring Game, however, offers the first live reps since Winter workouts, and it offers the closest gauge we will have until the 2021 season opener.
Running Back Depth?
Fans and media alike have made much about the fact that the Mountaineers added a pair of blue-chip running backs in its 2021 recruiting class. But don’t ring those bells too loudly just yet. West Virginia returns both Tony Mathis and A’Varius Sparrow to the fray, and both have made the most of their increased reps. Mathis enters his third year in Morgantown, and he seems ready to take a big step forward. Sparrow, on the other hand, remains raw, having started his football career later in high school. That said, his talent shows clearly.
The incoming duo will only help develop depth and improve competition among the group. We anticipate Mathis and Sparrow to show significant improvement this Saturday.
What About Quarterback?
The quarterback position has seen vigorous debate among the Mountaineer fan base. Some are ready for the era of Jarret Doege to end. Others believe Doege has plenty of room to improve this season. In our quarterback preview, we picked one of those limbs to climb out on. Indeed, we still challenge readers to find more than a couple examples of a multi-year starter to make vast improvements to his game going into his fifth college season. According to Brown, however, Doege is “the most improved player on the team” this Spring. If that proves true, we will gladly accept that exception to the rule and happily admit that we were wrong.
Indeed, in our interview with All-American Darius Stills, we heard him proclaim confidently that he feeds on doubt. Maybe Doege is similarly driven. And maybe the issues that manifested on the field hinged on minor mechanics that could be fixed in a few short months with the limited practice time college football rules permit. We still find it hard to believe that he can vastly improve his deep-ball accuracy or his awareness in (or out of) a collapsing pocket. That said, we don’t pretend to have the credentials to challenge Brown’s knowledge of the game.
Even with that doubt, we were not at all certain whether either Garrett Greene or Will Crowder have improved to the level of challenging Doege as the starter. Nor is that our decision to make. We write what we see. Greene, for what it is worth, has displayed the same exuberance and energy during Spring that fans got to witness in his action against Eastern Kentucky last season. We anticipate more of the same during the Gold-Blue Game. Greene will lead the second-team offense, and we anticipate that that offense will have a different look than the first. Will that necessarily mean “better” is something we don’t have the tools to assess. Nonetheless, we are excited to see what it looks like.
How Will the Defense Look After a Stellar 2020?
In previewing the West Virginia Spring game, we note that the defense faces fewer questions in 2021 than the offense. Sure, there are questions about depth. Replacing Stills will be a challenge. But Brown and Defensive Coordinator Jordan Lesley have a plan that involves keeping the best eleven on the field. What will this look like?
New Positions and Rotations?
Well, the defense might see a few wrinkles. The 4-2-5 base that West Virginia runs has a few basic ground rules, but it also has a strong following for a reason. Simply, the base features flexibility as a key trait.
To increase that flexibility, West Virginia will rotate plenty of players who look more like prototypical ends into the line’s interior. Akheem Mesidor is one such player. We expect to see plenty of rotation among this group, as Dante Stills, Jeffery Pooler, Jordan Jefferson, Jalen Thornton, Taijh Alston, Sean Martin, and several others offer plenty of talent to the defensive line room. Sometimes, putting the best eleven on the field will involve unexpected rotations among this group.
As for the linebackers, West Virginia could certainly use flexibility. Not only does its base defense require flexibility here given its alignments, but the linebacker room is relatively thin this Spring outside of the bandit position. As a result, we see wideout Devell Washington embracing his new role on the team, as a linebacker. Jairo Faverus also transitioned from safety to linebacker.
Can the Secondary Solve Depth Issues?
As we noted in our preview of the secondary, the unit faces significant depth issues resulting from multiple years of outbound transfers from the group. We anticipate one or more walk-ons to earn scholarships, and we anticipate a focused look into the portal by the staff. In fact, since we wrote our secondary preview, the Mountaineers received a commitment from Illinois State cornerback Charles Woods. We anticipate the addition of at least one more. Spring camp, however, affords the staff a chance to let its younger players accumulate more snaps than they otherwise would. Some of them are actively taking the next step forward in their own progression.
Nonetheless, we eagerly await our first look at the product of this development to understand how much the most recent attrition from the secondary (the losses of Dreshun Miller and Tykee Smith) hurt the defense, if at all. This is indeed our single biggest question for the defense going into the Spring game.
Lest We Forget: Previewing the Special Teams
In previewing the West Virginia Spring game, we would be remiss to overlook the special teams units. Brown and his staff have focused heavily on the third phase during Spring. Indeed, his early comments suggested as much. As for his goals for the units, he particularly wanted to see improvement in the field goal unit and the return units.
Brown looked for focused buy-in by his team on special teams, and he told media that the team drafted its special teams contributors. From top to bottom, Brown applauded the buy-in on these units. We anticipate some improvement, and the team will run through some special teams work during the Spring game. And while we don’t usually focus on this phase during the Gold-Blue game due to the game’s format, we certainly did not want to miss the opportunity to highlight the encouraging level of participation and focus on this phase.