The 2023 season is now just about two weeks away, which means the clock is ticking on Neal Brown’s WVU football team before they kickoff against Penn State. Position battles are taking shape and the intensity is being ramped up to ensure the Mountaineers are as ready as humanly possible.
Since a lot has developed from the start of fall camp and the energy around the team shifting into a business like attitude, it’s time to dive back in and offer a new set of takeaways about what I’ve seen and heard from West Virginia to this point.
It’s Getting Physical Out There
Despite a big challenge ahead right away, Brown, who enters his fifth season at WVU with a losing record, is trying to do everything in his power to avoid another slow start to a season. To that end, he’s making sure his team displays a high level of physicality at all times. Brown believes being physical during practice will carry over to game action.
Brown talked about wanting to make practice as physical and intense as the rules would allow him as his team prepares for an important reason for the program with a difficult slate of games. This is a “not wanting to leave any stone unturned” mentality.
Brown’s reasoning for being more physical now compared to at this point in past years is his hope that will lead to playing better during games and be more fundamentally sound. Most of this plan is about execution, especially on the defensive of the ball. Brown believes missed tackles were a major factor in WVU losing winnable games in 2022.
According to Brown, some of WVU’s veteran players like linebacker Lee Kpogba are embracing an approach centered around an increase in physical play.
As long as health doesn’t become a concern, this plan makes sense. However, it’s also safe to say the proof will be seen soon enough on the field.
Quarterback Competition Update
Even though it’s not the only position battle, the ongoing competition between Garrett Greene and Nicco Marchiol is the one that will impact the season the most. And while Brown won’t offer any insight on who may have the edge, he’s at least opening up about what he thinks of both players and what it will take to win the job.
Brown continues to profess a confidence in both young quarterbacks and the coaching staff has been reiterating the game plan will be the same no matter who is under center. But most importantly, it’s going to all come down to who takes better care of the football and leads the offense more efficiently.
Greene’s experience is something Brown, offensive coordinator Chad Scott and even passing game coordinator Sean Reagan constantly note as being important, but they have all also said his downfall is that he tries to do too much. I’ve always felt Greene would be the guy, again, mostly due to his experience, athleticism and the fact he provided a spark last season, but it is absolutely possible he could lose out to Marchiol if he doesn’t calm himself.
Marchiol hasn’t been perfect by any means either, but the running theme with him is that he’s showing maturity by responding well after a mistake. But is he making too many mistakes? That’s the big question. Brown can’t really afford to throw a guy in there if he knows he could kill the team with errors in judgment.
Improving on Special Teams is an Underrated Necessity
The offense and defense may grab most of the headlines, but WVU’s special teams could have just as much of an impact on the season ahead. West Virginia’s special teams unit will also look a lot different in 2023 than it did one season ago.
There’s a feeling Oliver Straw could advance from a stellar freshman season to becoming truly one of the best punters in the country. However, aside from Straw, there are questions surrounding every other aspect of special teams.
The returner battle is down to cornerback Beanie Bishop vs. wide receive Ja’Shaun Poke. They have separated themselves as the best possible options on the roster. Their speed and hands are what makes them both stand out from a myriad of players who have been trying out for the spot since the spring.
It’s also worth noting, the best guy will fill the role no matter how much he’s involved otherwise. West Virginia knows field position is a category they must be much better in all throughout the season. WVU finished in towards the bottom of the Big 12 in both the kickoff and punt return game in 2022.
Just as important as the returner is the kicking game. And to replace Casey Legg, who decided to retire from football at the occlusion of last season, West Virginia signed transfer Michael Hayes.
Replacing a kicker like Legg, one of the most accurate in the country, won’t be easy, but it sounds as if Brown likes what he’s been seeing from Hayes. When it was time for Koonz to speak about his new kicker, he made sure to emphasize that Hayes has the accuracy to go along with his ability to boom kicks.
As always, the work is far from done for West Virginia as the Mountaineers hope to turn the program around.
Find my other WVU football takeaways from fall camp below.
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