College football spring games are a chance for fans to get a peek behind the curtain, so to say. They are a chance to see players who are lower down the depth chart or on the scout team or are young and have not played much when the games have counted.
Instead of focusing on underclassmen such as quarterback Garrett Greene or wide receivers Kaden Prather and Sam Brown, however, the players I am most interested in seeing during West Virginia’s Gold-Blue spring game this Saturday are all older. The five players I list here all have a chance to be high-impact contributors for the Mountaineers this season and what makes them interesting to me is that we have scarcely seen four out of the five play in actual games.
I do not think one spring game will give any meaningful insight into how any of these five will perform in 2021 but I am interested in seeing how Neal Brown and company use them on Saturday and if there are any visible improvements from any of them already.
R-So. Tony Mathis – Running Back
Tony Mathis will not be West Virginia’s starting running back this season, that was never a consideration. Leddie Brown is going to be the bell cow in WVU’s backfield in 2021 and he is going to get all the touches he can handle and then some. Mathis, however, will play an important role as one of Brown’s backups.
In 2020, Mountaineer running backs ran for 1,401 rushing yards. Leddie Brown accounted for 72% of that production. With last year’s backup, Alec Sinkfield, off to Boston College, that leaves a big hole behind Brown in WVU’s backfield.
“We were fortunate last year with Leddie, but I think we need help running the football as far as [Leddie] can’t be the only guy that’s carrying the load,” Neal Brown said earlier this spring. “We’ve got to be more productive out of that second running back spot.”
Now the second-oldest running back on the roster, Mathis seems like the obvious candidate to step into that primary backup role. Although, given his limited playing experience (22 career carries) Mathis is far from a sure thing. That is why this was such a big spring for the Florida native to show he can handle having a real role in the offense next season.
“He’s really explosive and really strong and can make tough runs,” Leddie Brown said. “He’s coming along really well as we get farther and farther into spring.”
R-Sr. Scottie Young – Safety
Scottie Young transferred over from Arizona last season along with linebacker Tony Fields. While Fields was able to play right away as a graduate transfer, Young had to sit out for most of the season, only playing in WVU’s bowl game against Army. 2020 was the first year of his college career that Young was not a full-time starter, but safeties coach Dontae Wright said he handled it very well.
“It was the first time in his career he’s not been a contributor at all and I thought he handled it just like Alonzo Addae did the year before,” Wright said. “His role was to be on that scout team and learn our defense as much as he can and he did that. You can see he took that role seriously because he was able to come back and help us in the bowl game.”
Young will be right back to being a starter this season as he is the guy that has been tasked with replacing All-American Tykee Smith at the spear position. Wright and others have raved about the spring Young has had, but I am still very interested to see him play as the full-time spear on Saturday.
“He’s had a great spring playing the spear position and also learning the free safety position,” Wright said. “He is a terrific football player, has unbelievable instincts, is one of the leaders of our defense.”
Sr. Jackie Matthews – Cornerback
Like Mathis and Young, Jackie Matthews will also be trying to fill a role caused by someone transferring away from WVU. In 2020 West Virginia really only used two cornerbacks in Dreshun Miller and Nicktroy Fortune. While those two played well, WVU’s other corners were not able to get a lot of experience last season. So it was a big problem when Miller announced his intention to transfer earlier this offseason.
Matthews joined WVU last season as a junior college transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College but did not play much outside of some special teams coverage. He came in as a safety but transitioned to corner and has reportedly made a big leap forward this spring.
“Jackie’s looked great,” Fortune said. “When we do individual [work], I always make sure I’m watching Jackie so I can learn from some of his game. He’s definitely a dark horse, he’s somebody this year we’re going to need. He’s been playing at a high level, he’s holding his own and he’s been looking really good out there.”
Matthews was an All-American and a national champion at MGCCC and has plenty of playing experience, just not at this level. He is slated to start opposite of Fortune right now and he could instill a lot of confidence with a solid showing on Saturday.
Jr. Doug Nester – Offensive Line
West Virginia native Doug Nester comes to WVU with 17 career starts already under his belt from his two years at Virginia Tech. Nester will surely be a starter on WVU’s offensive line net season, the only question is where that will be, exactly. Offensive line coach Matt Moore has moved Nester between right guard and right tackle this spring, trying to find his best spot.
“I wanted to get a solid view of what he looked like at both of them,” Moore said. “I’ve just got to find out where he’s going to fit. He’s looked really good at times at guard and he’s looked pretty good at tackle. I’m not dead-set on where he’s going to be.”
Moore said he will also move Nester to the left side of the line over the summer to try and find his best position. No matter where he plays, Nester should provide a boost to a WVU line that struggled with consistency throughout 2020. Playing experience is hard to manufacture for offensive linemen, so WVU was fortunate to be able to bring in Nester this spring.
“His transition’s been great,” Moore said. “He fits in perfect because he fits in the same mold as [Brandon] Yates, [James] Gmiter, [Zach] Frazier and Jordan White. He came in the offseason and saw how we work in the weight room and the standard our guys had set and he fit in great there.”
R-Jr. Bryce Ford-Wheaton – Wide Receiver
Truth be told, I could have put any of WVU’s receivers in this final spot, I could have up every WVU receiver in this spot for that matter. WVU’s receiving corps has been maligned by drops each of the last two seasons and it is time for someone to finally emerge from the pack. For the second offseason in a row, Neal Brown is pegging Ford-Wheaton to be that receiver.
“He’s had a great winter, he’s uber-talented, he’s intelligent, he knows our offense in and out and I think it’s time,” Brown said. “I think he’s ready to take that next step and I think he can be one of the better receivers in our league.”
After receiving similar praise from his head coach last summer, Ford-Wheaton turned in a disappointing 2020 season. He caught 27 passes for 416 yards and three touchdowns, a far cry from stats the best receivers in the Big 12 put up.
“I tell him every single day, the only thing that’s holding Bryce back is his mind,” cornerback Nicktroy Fortune said. “What I want to see out of Bryce is just him having that confidence knowing when he steps on that field, there’s no one that can run with him, he can just go out there and dominate. Once he gets that down, he’ll be the best receiver in the Big 12.”
Whether it is Ford-Wheaton, Sam James, Winston Wright, Sam Brown, Kaden Prather or Isaiah Esdale, one of WVU’s pass-catchers needs to break out and become the number-one option for WVU’s quarterbacks next season. Saturday will be the first glimpse as to who that will be.