West Virginia fans will catch their first official glimpse of new coach Neal Brown when he is introduced as the Mountaineers 35th head coach on Thursday morning. While they’re certain to get familiar with Brown’s personality in the coming weeks, it will still be an anxious nine-month wait before anyone sees what his football team will look like.
Fortunately, his former foes in the Sun Belt Conference have a pretty good idea of what fans should expect from the Mountaineers this fall.
Though interviewed separately, Arkansas State coach Blake Anderson and Louisiana-Monroe coach Matt Viator immediately mentioned the same characteristic to summarize Brown’s Troy teams.
“Coming into the league, when I thought of Neal Brown, I thought of Air Raid,” said Viator, who has coached the Warhawks since 2016. “But I tell you what, they’re as physical as anyone in the league. They’re going to throw it, but they’re very physical.”
Anderson, who has coached Arkansas State since 2014, had a similar assessment.
“They always play tough. Hard-nosed team,” Anderson said. “They don’t make a lot of mistakes. He does a good job of eliminating mistakes. Even though he’s a spread guy, there’s a physical aspect on both sides of the ball.
“Physical, physical football games. He prepares his guys well to play hit-you-in-the-mouth football. He does it in a way that’s fun to watch, but is still physical.”
Viator said it’s clear that Brown gets maximum effort out of his teams, who are a perfect 3-0 in bowl appearances. That includes this year’s 42-32 comeback win over Buffalo in the Dollar General Bowl. Half of Troy’s points were scored in the fourth quarter.
“They play extremely hard and look like they love playing for him,” Viator said. “Look at the bowl game this year. Buffalo came out strong. And then in the second half, they whipped the hell out of Buffalo.”
Schematically, Brown builds his offense around his players rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes. The Trojans went into the season needing to replace four-year starter Brandon Silvers, who was a traditional drop-back passer. They did so with dual-threat Kaleb Barker, adjusting the playbook accordingly.
“He adjusted his offense to more zone-read, almost some three-back option stuff with a receiver coming in motion,” Viator said. “I thought he was going to be one of them guys throwing it 50 or 60 times. But this year he had two good backs and a quarterback who could run the ball. This year was totally different from the past two or three.”
When Barker got hurt midseason, Brown had to adjust on the fly to another pocket passer. But rather than going back to the pass-first attack they had known with Silvers at quarterback, the Trojans did a lot of running out of the pistol formation. Troy exceeded 40 carries in three straight November games.
“They changed completely,” Anderson said. “This was his best coaching job since he’s been there. This year they still won 10 games with band-aids and smoke and mirrors. It’s a testament to his ability to think on his feet and adapt.”
Defensively, Anderson is plenty familiar with coordinator Vic Koenning. The duo worked together at North Carolina in addition to facing one another in 2016 and ’17. (The Sun Belt has an unbalanced conference schedule).
“There’s things he does in the back end that create problems for quarterbacks and what you see with your eyes,” Anderson said. “But it started up front. They were physical and violent up front.”
The Trojans usually played with three traditional down linemen and a defensive end/linebacker hybrid who effectively game them a four-man front. Viator said Troy was often outsized up front – particularly in upset wins over LSU and Nebraska – but frequently confused opposing offensive linemen.
“They moved the front six a lot. They moved and twisted on all three downs, which was different,” Viator said. “They did that more than anybody else. Again, playing to the strengths of his football team. He wasn’t as big up front the last two years as the first.”
Both Anderson and Viator expect the on-field product to be strong at West Virginia, though they also expect that it is off the field where Mountaineer fans will take the strongest liking to their new coach.
“He’s a good ball coach and an even better person,” said Anderson, who has known Brown for a decade. “I’m really excited for him. They made a great hire.”