This is a great spot to be in, here on the eve of the spring game. On Saturday, Mountaineer football clears a significant mile marker on the road to 2019 kickoff with the annual spring scrimmage. It’s good to be excited and to feel that much of the conjecture and postulating that has happened in the months since Neal Brown arrived on campus will be validated in same shape or form. Also, *gasp* new uniforms. Let’s get those out, already.
Perhaps more importantly, the spring game also an opportunity to remember where this program is and how far it has to go. Neal Brown and his newly-assembled staff appear to be doing all the right things and there’s a palpable energy surrounding the program that is unlike anything we’ve felt in quite awhile. Still, growing pains are inevitable, as even the best coaches can’t turn lead into old gold overnight.
Here are three things to keep in mind heading into Saturday’s Gold-Blue game:
1. Don’t expect a starting quarterback to emerge. Someone will inherit the mantle of Will Grier. Maybe it will be Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall, or former Miami Hurricane Jack Allison, or maybe it will be the youngest and most versatile of the bunch, Trey Lowe. Hell, it might even be walk-on Trent Jackson who, as of last week, was the only quarterback mentioned by name during media sessions. That’s how things are right now under center for the Mountaineers, a hodgepodge of uncertainty.
Neal Brown is going to be judicious in divvying up reps between his signal callers in an effort to let each kid run the offense in a Game Day environment. No matter what happens, this is a battle that will likely last into the thick of fall camp. Allison and Lowe are the veterans, at least in terms of time spent with the program. While the former has already started for West Virginia and the latter is the more impressive athlete, Kendall was the highest-rated recruit of the bunch and happened to apprentice behind back-to-back Heisman winners at Oklahoma.
The big thing here is that everyone has been given the same footing, and there are presumably no favorites. It’s anyone’s spot to win. Watch closely, take notes and make all the wild predictions you want — nothing will be settled based on what happens on Saturday, but it will give us some idea as to what West Virginia’s new offensive identity could be with Brown running the show. And on that note…
2. The offense will still need a lot of work. Look, I know I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, particularly when you consider how Brown has partitioned the offense between the minds of Matt Moore and Chad Scott. How it will differ from Dana Holgorsen’s ‘throw often/run when it’s absolutely necessary’ attack remains to be seen, but any time a new system is being installed, there are setbacks. Word out of spring practice is that the defense has consistently had the upper hand in live play and, honestly, it comes as no surprise. Without any one player elevating himself under center, and without any established stars out wide (Marcus Simms is flat-out dangerous but his absence in recent weeks is cause for concern), it stands to reason that Brown & Co. will start simple and worry about the flashy Big 12 wrinkles later. What I’m saying is, we’re likely to see A LOT of the run game.
West Virginia’s best unit, apart from maybe the safety group, is running back. Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway, Leddie Brown and Alec Sinkfield all return this season to form arguably the best ground unit in the Big 12, if not the whole nation. While Sinkfield was limited last season with injuries, the former three combined for 2,196 yards and 21 touchdowns. Brown has been very public over the course of his career that his scheme is amenable based on the talent he has on hand. That being the case, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t lean hard on a crop of ball carriers that run the gamut from big and fast to long and athletic. The quarterback situation will continue to develop, and there are moving parts all along the offensive line apart from entrenched starters Colton McKivitz and Josh Sills. In addition, young players will emerge from the receiving corps to do their level best to replace two prolific figures in Sills and Jennings. Yes, TJ Simmons, Tevin Bush and (until we’re told differently) Marcus Simms are all back, and that’s a solid core to build from. When the Gold-Blue game kicks off tomorrow, however, the only sure thing is that West Virginia has the capability to run hard and run often. Beyond that, try not to get discouraged at every thing else that is still going through the beta test phase. This will take time.
3. Enjoy the journey. There’s not a fan on earth that doesn’t want their respective team to turn in a flawless spring game performance. We all want to see a finely-tuned monster on both sides of the ball. The reality is — and this is especially true for teams in the midst of a regime change — there is going to be a lot of slop and raw machinery that is being re-tooled in the open. I urge all of you that have been riding hard on the Neal Brown welcome wagon not to feel deflated.
The change that is occurring is necessary. Vic Koenning’s beefed-up defensive philosophy will likely plug some of those long-standing porous run lanes that people loved to exploit against the 3-3-5. Guys like VanDarius Cowan, Quondarius Qualls and JoVanni Stewart have all switched positions, and there will probably be some miscues. Players will give up some big plays because of the split-second hesitation that comes with learning. It’s OK.
Similarly, this new offense that could be a multiple-look attack is still being worked at the forge. Kendall, Allison and Lowe are all working through their respective learning curves, and because this is the Big 12, where life starts and ends with your signal caller, their mistakes can cause a network of unsightly chain reactions. For the first time since Brown arrived, one of you (there’s always someone) will say aloud “maybe this was a mistake” or “this is gonna SUCK.”
But it’s all okay. This is all part of the deal. We’re in uncharted territory, and everything from the game day threads to the play-calling is being overhauled. There is glory in the build up, even if it is a largely painful and tedious ordeal. Savor this moment, because we’re still all at the starting line. Years down the road, we could all be looking back on this first spring game and thinking “I remember when this was all so… unrefined.” Enjoy the moment, breathe it in, stay as objective as you possibly can. Neal Brown and the rest of his subject matter experts are working madly in the lab to put together something special, and each misstep is bringing us one inch closer to that perfect assembly.