MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sophomore linebacker Jake Abbott was presented with the Tommy Nicklovich Award prior to Saturday’s spring game. The award has been presented annually since 1991 to the West Virginia walk-on who distinguishes himself through “attitude and work ethic” each spring.
It isn’t hard to see why Abbott was this year’s honoree.
“I could sleep in this place,” Abbott said in all sincerity. “I love it here. I could sleep on the couches.”
The coaching staff doesn’t actually allow Abbott to do that, but his presence during waking hours has captured their attention.
“You talk about Jake, and you talk about a guy that’s all-in,” said head coach Neal Brown. “He’s all-in on being a Mountaineer. He’s a guy that has great effort, great attitude every single day.”
Abbott, listed at 6-foot and 220 pounds, figures to make an impact on special teams this fall. But Brown sees him doing even more.
“I’ll tell you right now, he’s going to be a factor on defense,” Brown said. “I think he’s got a chance to be a really plus player for us on special teams, and his role’s going to increase on defense.”
Abbott appeared in four games last year. Rather than take a Division II scholarship, the Fairmont Senior graduate joined the program as a walk-on in 2017.
“Growing up in West Virginia, every little boy has the dream of putting on the old gold and blue,” Abbott said. “It’s something different than just knowing you can play football. I love this state more than I love the game of football, and that’s what pushes me in the weight room. There’s times I struggle, but when you see ‘The Pride of West Virginia’ written across the field, that pushes you to do one more rep or one more set.”
Abbott says eventually earning a scholarship is a goal, but it’s not what drives him.
“The reward is being here,” he said.
The award is named after Tommy Nicklovich, who played at WVU from 1979-82 before dying of cancer in 1983.
Saturday’s other major awards were handed out to the top offseason performers in the strength and conditioning program. Linebacker Josh Chandler, offensive lineman Colton McKivitz, defensive lineman Reese Donahue and running back Alec Sinkfield were presented with the “Iron Mountaineer” award.
McKivitz is a back-to-back winner of the trophy, which is an ode to West Virginia. The trophy is a 6.2-pound coal statue of a shirtless and musclebound weightlifting Mountaineer.
“The first one is at the house with my dad in Jacobsburg (Ohio),” McKivitz said. “This one will say here with me.”
Defensive end Stone Wolfley and linebacker Exree Loe were both credited with two sacks for the Gold team.
Cornerback Keith Washington picked off a Trey Lowe pass and potentially could have returned it for a touchdown, but the play was blown dead after a five-yard return.
Cornerback Jordan Adams made an impressive adjustment to haul in a wayward Jack Allison pass for an interception, but followed it by earning an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for a throat-slash motion celebrating the play.
“Jordan Adams had a nice pick and then had a very immature penalty after that,” said coach Neal Brown. “So I was glad they flagged it.”
Consistency key in run-blocking
Adjusted for sacks, West Virginia’s top offensive unit averaged 2.9 yards per carry in Saturday’s spring game. That obviously won’t get the job done in the regular season, making run-blocking one of the primary points of emphasis this summer.
“There’s a lot of things for an offensive lineman that slows you down a bit this early,” said offensive line coach Matt Moore. “We’ve got a lot of code-words that we signal in. You’ve got to know the front, you’ve got to know the play, you’ve got to know the signal. In August we’ll be able to process faster.”
At times, the run game has shown flashes of dominance this spring. It just hasn’t happened often enough.
“We have the backs for it,” McKivitz said. “Those guys can run the ball. If you get them untouched to the first level, they can make guys miss. A big thing to preach going into the fall will be to be more consistent [in run-blocking].”
The Mountaineers still have two open scholarships to use in this year’s recruiting class, and Brown has every intention of taking advantage of that.
“We’re always going to be creative here as far as how we build the roster,” Brown said. “If you look at the running back room, we have competition day-in and day-out. We need that in a lot of rooms. As far as what we need, I won’t talk about that here, but we’ll definitely be active.”
The only new addition to West Virginia’s spring injury list on Saturday was right tackle Kelby Wickline, who did not dress out. Sophomore Tyler Thurmond received the majority of the snaps in Wickline’s place for the Gold team, though right guard Josh Sills also moved out to tackle for a series.
Defensive end Dante Stills was the lone player to get injured during the game, spraining his right ankle on the final play of the first half.
“I’ll be alright in a couple days,” Stills said.
Saturday’s game drew 18,865 fans — the third-largest spring game attendance in WVU history behind 2011 (22,000) and 2011 (21,029).