MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The can’t-miss moment of every West Virginia football practice has nothing to do with football.
Shortly after players finish stretching with their position group, head coach Neal Brown calls “juice station!” into his microphone. On that cue, every player rushes to the end of the north end zone on the Steve Antoline Practice Field and starts hopping and shouting in a giant circle.
It may look a bit silly, but the Mountaineers swear that it gets every practice started on the right note.
“Last year, you could tell how practice was going to go before it even starts,” said junior linebacker Zach Sandwisch. “Guys were like ‘Oh, it’s practice. We don’t want to do this. It’s hot out.’ Or, ‘it’s cold out.’ Juice, it doesn’t matter if it’s hot, cold, raining, anything. You get all hyped up and you’re ready for practice. Coach Brown wants us to start fast and finish fast.
“I believe it works.”
Junior safety Dante Bonamico is another enthusiastic juice drinker. At 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, he always practices with an edge. But he says that it is now enhanced.
“I think it’s huge,” Bonamico said. “You’ve got a long day of class or maybe academics in the morning. You come out to practice and you’re drowsy. And then you get something like that where you get the juices flowing and you get the guys ready to go. It jump-starts the whole practice and gets guys ready.”
Senior left tackle Colton McKivitz doesn’t have the vertical of most of his teammates in the circle, but he likes how it breaks up the monotony of practice before things even start.
“I think that’s a big key of waking guys up,” he said. “You get in that lull of doing the same thing every other day and hitting the same guy every other day. I think there is that need for that energy at the beginning of practice.”
Before diving into the playbook, the Mountaineers also have a handful of competition drills between the offense and defense. Sometimes it’s a pass skeleton between receivers and defensive backs. Often it’s a variation of the Oklahoma Drill, which pits two players head-to-head in a blocking match until one gets the advantage.
“That always gets us fired up pretty well,” Sandwisch said. “I love competitions. Coach Brown loves competitions.”
The drills are best out of three with the losing side forced to do five up-down push-ups.
“I hate losing,” said Sandwisch, who is itching to get back in the circle after a loss to tight end Jovani Haskins. “I think that’s everyone that plays D-I college football. You hate losing.”
The excitement around the drill is contagious.
“I hope he calls my name today,” Bonamico said Thursday afternoon.
He did not get his wish during Thursday evening’s practice, when safety Derrek Pitts took on receiver Sam James and safety Deamonte Lindsay battled running back Martell Pettaway in a pair of duels won by the offense.
“You get guys that are fighting to get up there and go,” Bonamico said.
Last season’s fortunes were changed by just a handful of late plays against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. McKivitz doesn’t think it’s crazy to theorize the extra boost of energy experienced in practices this spring could become the difference in finishing games off in the fall.
“I always go back to you practice like you play and play like you practice,” McKivitz said. “Any little edge that has you practicing harder than you should be and bringing your best every day is a key thing. That’s something that’s going to help us in the long run.”