With the end of the summer lull now in sight, Mountaineer nation and, truly, all of college football fandom is ready to take in anything other than another regurgitated off-field storyline. There is only so much of the rumor mill and twitter-mining one can endure before the call of actual football becomes too protracted to ignore.
Still, it’s hard not to feel some way about the news Monday that Tate Martell, the one-time no. 2 ranked dual-threat player in high school who bolted from Ohio State as a freshman, received an immediate green light on his waiver and trash-talked his way down to Miami was not named the starter for the Hurricanes. It’s an interesting aside to one of college football’s most interesting dynamics. It’s no longer just about battling through the summer doldrums to earn your mantle: it’s about sub-tweeting other players, cryptic Instagram posts, the presumption of deference towards bluebloods and the irony in watching two players coming off questionable power plays suddenly finding themselves sitting second chair.
While the goings-on in either Columbus or Coral Gables have little-to-no immediate impact on what happens in Morgantown entering the 2019 season, it at least offers a little added context to the ongoing battle for the QB1 spot on Neal Brown’s squad.
After all, Almost Heaven, WV has become something of a sanctuary for impact transfers in recent years, most recent/notably Will Grier, Jabril Robinson, Kenny Bigelow, Clint Trickett, and Kyle Bosch. This season, however, West Virginia’s offseason is headlined by an entrenched battle for the starting quarterback spot. As most of you know, the presumptive leaders to take up Grier’s mantle are, surprise, a pair of transfers in Jack Allison and Austin Kendall. Allison, who came to West Virginia by way of Miami, saw action in multiple games last season and put up a serviceable showing in his lone start against Syracuse in a bowl game loss. Kendall is perhaps the more interesting transfer story due to his back-to-back years sitting behind Heisman winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray while earning a degree at Oklahoma. His plight was further elevated by way Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley bungled the whole situation, appearing almost brazen in the way he tried to prevent his longtime back up from gaining immediate eligibility.
They have pedigree, as both were rated as four-star prospects coming out of high school with a slew of high-D1 offers between them. On paper, it sounds like a dream scenario for Neal Brown and West Virginia to have a back-and-forth between a pair of qualified candidates battling behind a talented (if inexperienced) offensive line and buffeted by a considerably talented and (very experienced) running back corps. Yet the perceived reality is that West Virginia is bracing for a substantial drop off under center after Will Grier was drafted and took with him 3,864 yards and 38 touchdowns.
“Allison is too frail”
“Kendall doesn’t have the arm”
“If he was so good, why did he sit for two years?”
“Jack can’t make good decisions”
You’ve seen the nitpicking online and maybe you’ve even participated in it. Scrutiny is to be expected and, when a clear-cut starter has yet to emerge from a battle that has been waging since the beginning of spring, desperation is like to rear its ugly head. Perhaps more importantly, the fanfare surrounding Neal Brown and the holistic reset he’s implementing have people incorrectly gauging where the quarterback position should be, at present. Neal Brown is the most beloved coach in power 5 that has yet to coach a down, after all. To hear the average West Virginia fan tell it, the upcoming season is going to a suck-fest and quarterback play will be the reason for it.
If you’re so ensconced within your own tribe and aren’t keeping tabs on what’s happening on a national scale, it might be time to take a look around. That anointed stars, with hundreds of thousands of social media followers, seemingly played the system to nab starting roles devoid of competition aren’t promised anything should tell you something. That Fields, once an heir-apparent at Georgia might now have traveled all the way to the Buckeye state only to see a fellow transfer from Kentucky get the nod from Ryan Day should tell you something. That a blue-chip player like Bru McCoy, who bolted from USC and spent a month in camp with Texas before reversing course back to Southern Cal, isn’t laying waste to the competition around him should also tell you something. That any modicum of adversity inherent in position battles should be subverted or altogether avoided seems to be a doing a great disservice to the sport itself.
To a certain degree, we’ve been conditioned to sound the alarm at the first sign of struggle. Because a single person doesn’t emerge from the get-go and blow the doors off the competition then something must be wrong. We have arrived at the age of immediacy in college football and whether we want to admit it or not, it affects player and spectator alike.
What I contend, despite West Virginia being nearly universally predicted to hang near the bottom of the big 12 this season, is enjoy the ongoing position battle. Appreciate that there are several guys (Trey Lowe III and even Jaret Doege included) in the mix for the most important spot on the team. Remember it even two or three months from now when West Virginia is making unexpected waves in the Big 12 and looking like a competent offense and know that it didn’t happen overnight.
If WVSN’s own Schuyler Callihan is to be believed, Austin Kendall is the favorite to win the starting job. If he does, it’s because he absolutely, 1,000% deserves it. That he was willing to stay on board with Oklahoma despite future Heisman-winners in Mayfield and Murray arriving in Norman and stealing the spotlight, should speak to Kendall’s character. That Allison is entering his third year and has waited patiently behind two years of Will Grier tearing up the stat sheets and seems to be the consummate “team” guy at every turn seems to indicate just as much about his character. It’s part and parcel to the that “holistic” approach that Brown seems to be taking in his inaugural season in the gold and blue. Camp is a proving ground and it’s where coaches and players have access to the rawest ingredients and whatever ends up getting pulled out the over on August 31st, it will be hard-won.
There is no heir-apparent, here. There’s no nebulous loophole through which a savior will be able to scuttle through. Most importantly, the expectations for West Virginia in 2019 don’t warrant the type of spotlight that seems to be spent on the bluebloods of college football. What the Mountaineers, Neal Brown and his staff are up to seems to be safely bottled up in north-central West Virginia. I like it that way. There are no favorites in Morgantown and no one has been handed anything but an opportunity. Coral Gables, Columbus, Los Angeles, Austin, Twitter and the entire internet be damned- whoever lines up under center earned it and nothing else matters.