MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s spring game is here, and with it comes far more intrigue than your typical edition of April football.
Granted, this year’s game was guaranteed to be more interesting than last year’s, which was cancelled altogether. But the perfect storm of a new coaching staff, a new quarterback and even new uniforms guarantees a level of interest that isn’t always present this time of year.
Here are a few of the things to keep an eye on as the Mountaineers take the field in Neal Brown’s public debut:
The uniform unveiling
Like it or not, this may well be the No. 1 topic of conversation among West Virginia fans for the rest of the weekend. The administration has done a good job keeping a veil of secrecy over the change, unlike the New York Jets recent redesign.
Don’t expect to see the new uniforms on the field, though. This should be the final West Virginia performance in the current “pick-axe font” uniform design.
Defensive lineman Reese Donahue is one of the few players who has actually seen the new design, presumably as a model for an official video presentation.
“I wore them and I’m extremely excited about it,” said Donahue, who also admitted he usually doesn’t get too worked up about uniforms. “The fans should be extremely excited. You guys should look forward to the surprise.”
No starter has been named, but all eyes will be on Austin Kendall. The graduate transfer arrived from Oklahoma this January for a reason. After sitting behind back-to-back Heisman Trophy winners, then getting usurped by Alabama grad transfer Jalen Hurts, Kendall wanted a chance to play.
The spring game will provide a glimpse into whether Kendall has already provided some separation from Jack Allison and Trey Lowe, or if the battle figures to continue well into August.
The passing game might not be too crisp just yet as all three quarterbacks have taken reps with the No. 1 offense.
“There has to be some continuity, and we’re repping three, sometimes four guys, and it’s tough,” Brown said. “As a quarterback, it’s hard to get in a rhythm when you go a series, sit a series, go a series. So, there is some of that, and that’s to be expected.”
Another reason the passing game doesn’t figure to be in midseason form? The inexperienced crew the inexperienced quarterbacks are throwing to.
Gary Jennings, David Sills and Trevon Wesco are all their way to the NFL. Marcus Simms, the team’s top returning receiver, hasn’t been practicing for the majority of the spring, tending to what Brown described as a personal matter.
The coaching staff is high on junior T.J. Simmons, the former Alabama transfer. Simmons had 28 catches for 341 yards last year.
“T.J. Simmons has really been the catalyst offensively,” Brown said recently.
Slot receiver Tevin Bush is a known entity as a speed merchant. Isaiah Esdale, who transferred into the program last August, will be an intriguing player to watch in the slot as well.
Redshirt freshmen Sam James, Bryce Wheaton and Randy Fields are all potential impact outside receivers looking to make a strong first impression.
For critics of West Virginia’s old 3-3-5 defense, it will be a glorious day regardless of outcome. For those with no dog in that debate, it will simply be interesting to see how new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning puts together a defense built around players recruited into a different system.
Koenning has described his defense as a hybrid between a 3-4 and 4-2-5. West Virginia’s offensive players have marveled at how difficult it has been to play against due to players disguising their true intentions pre-snap.
“We’ve never seen a defense like that before,” said running back Martell Pettaway. “So that’s probably the biggest challenge, scheming for a defense you’ve never seen before and most likely won’t see in the Big 12. They disguise a lot of things in plenty of different ways. That’s the best I can put it, really. They line up in different areas we’ve never seen before.”
The defensive front will be one of the most intriguing areas to watch. Koenning is giving his linemen the green light to be more disruptive in the backfield rather than keeping blockers engaged. He’s also utlitzed the Bandit, a hybrid linebacker/edge rusher who gives the appearance of a four-man front. Zach Sandwisch and former Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan have been the primary players at that spot.