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Sights and Sounds: West Virginia Football Drills Begin To Solidify Position Groups

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On Saturday morning, the WVU Football team christened the Milan Puskar Stadium turf with spring ball action.

Although spring positioning and drills are hardly indicative of starting spots come fall, head coach Neal Brown appeared to have his groupings fairly solidified. WVU’s roster is laden with veterans at nearly every position, and spring practice has only served to accentuate that.

Brown spoke with the media after practice and seemed decisive on both sides of the ball.

OFFENSE

He began by citing center Zach Frazier, tackle Wyatt Milum, and guard James Gmiter on the offensive line’s left side.

“I thought the left side of our offensive line, from the center over, played well,” he said. “Frazier, he sets the standard up there, but I thought Wyatt Milum at left tackle played really well, and then James Gmiter; he’s been consistent. He’s had a great off-season, so I was excited about how he played today.”

Last season’s offensive line left much to be desired, but the entire group remains intact for the 2022 season, and Brown has already seen improvements, five days into spring practices.

Moving backward from the interior linemen, Brown also noted running back strength. Losing Leddie Brown opened up a position for Tony Mathis to shine in 2022, and the coaching staff has been pointing him out since practices began. He’ll have competition in Justin Johnson, and offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has already deployed a few plays that feature split back formations, so Mountaineer fans could see flashes of greatness from both of those guys. Although nothing was explicitly said about the power of adding RB depth with the talents of Clemson transfer Lyn-J Dixon, his reps on the field today scored at least one long-yardage touchdown and short gains with the 2s.

“At running back, I thought we came out and did some good things,” Brown said. “Tony Mathis, he ran in our thud period, did a nice job. I thought Justin Johnson was good; he’s a guy that we can it’s clicking for him now. Huge difference from where he was in the fall to where he is right now as far as his comfort.”

The three-way quarterback battle is still brewing, and Harrell has switched the ways in which he sorts out reps between the trio. Today, Garrett Greene was primarily taking snaps with the 1s, and Nicco Marchiol and Goose Crowder were backing up.

“Garrett had a nice day,” Brown said. “Garrett threw the deep ball well today. That’s the thing that really stuck out. He threw the deep ball well. Nicco was feast and famine. He’s a high school senior, and he went out there and got reps with the 1s, Power-5 football. No Offense, Hamilton High School, where he played last year, they’re really good, but there’s a little bit of difference between that and going out and playing up against our first group of defenders. The game’s happening fast. Goose had a long run for a touchdown today on a draw play, and I thought he did a good job at moving up in the pocket and hitting some plays downfield.”

All three had extensive run experience in high school, and today saw the trio rusty, but improving at diversifying the options.

Moving toward the sidelines, Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James anchor the wings, but rookies Preston Fox and Kaden Prather are already showing up and showing out on the field.

“At receiver, Preston Fox, the kid makes plays,” Brown said of the redshirt sophomore. “He catches the ball. He gives himself a good position. The quarterbacks have a lot of trust in him… Kaden Prather probably had 200+ yards today. He looked like a guy that we really see.”

When the team took to scrimmage, the 1s included James, Prather, and Mathis in their respective slots. Tight ends Treylan Davis and Colorado State transfer Brian Polenday also saw the field during those runs.

Of Davis, Brown said, “He’s a guy who redshirted last year that has done really well blocking. We haven’t utilized him in the pass game much, but I thought he blocked really well.”

DEFENSE

Speaking of blocking, of WVU’s 10 leading tacklers from 2021, only three remain: Exree Loe, Taijh Alston, and Dante Stills. Brown hasn’t seemed worried about the strength of the WVU secondary, and in scrimmage, the defense came away with a stellar goal-line stop inside the five-yard line.

“Defensively, Taurus Simmons had a really good day, had multiple sacks and Coach Jackson kind of challenged him coming into the day. He’s a guy we need to come on. Lee Kpogba, I thought, at MIKE linebacker, showed today why we’re excited about him. Charles Woods continues to make a bunch of plays, and Marcis Floyd, at a safety position, was really physical today. had an interception while you all were in there.”

The absence of Akheem Mesidor saw redshirt junior Jordan Jefferson slot into the nose tackle position and face off against Frazier. His 6’3″, 310-pound frame fits in well with his flanks,  Alston (6’4″-250 lb) and Stills (6’4″-285 lb).

“Jordan Jefferson, playing in the middle,” Brown said. “That’s a guy who just continues to get better… I thought he was a difference maker on the interior today.”

The defensive line depth also got commended by Brown.

“Zeiqui Lawton, he’s going to get a lot of reps,” he said. “Jalen Thornton is a guy that you all have heard me mention. I think he continues to get better this spring. It’s going to be a huge spring for him. Jordan Jefferson was established from about the midpoint of last year on. There were some games that he started and played a ton of snaps; we feel good about the direction he’s trending. Dante gives us some flexibility. We’re keeping him out of the full tackle stuff. Taurus Simmons is a guy we really need to come on. Sean Martin, I think this is going to be a huge spring from him. He flashed today and did some good things… The numbers there are fine. We’ve just got to make sure that these guys continue to raise their game.”

Brown’s coaching staff is also transforming the secondary. Specifically of note, Murray State cornerback transfer Floyd is making the transition to safety.

“At Murray, [Floyd] was really well-coached,” Brown said. “Those guys there do a really good job defensively… They used Marcis in a bunch of different roles; he played nickel, he played safety, and he played corner. Here, he’s got the opportunity to play safety or the, kind of, boundary corner position… We wanted to put a veteran there who’s played a lot of snaps, that will communicate, and that has football intelligence, and that’s why we put him there. We do some things in practice where he gets some corner reps, but I foresee him playing safety.”

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