MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As West Virginia’s football facility itself sits partially gutted for renovation, Mountaineers coach Neal Brown is eager to get the next phase of his own fixer-upper underway.
Brown met with the media Thursday to preview spring practices, which get started next Tuesday.
“Our program, much like this building, is under heavy construction,” Brown said. “I’m excited to be back for this time of year because we get to teach. Spring ball and fall camp are my favorite times of year.
“I like our energy. We’re growing in some of the key areas we focused on during winter workouts — discipline, accountability, mental toughness, and competitive character. We’ve tried to put them in as many situations as we can where there’s defined winners and losers.”
Brown’s primary theme for this spring is growth, which shouldn’t be difficult to achieve given last season’s overall youth, adjustment to a first-year coaching staff and 5-7 overall record.
“As a program our entire focus is on growth, both on an individual and team unit perspective,” he said.
Brown cited the following areas as West Virginia’s main spring points of emphasis.
- Turnover Margin: “Offensively we’ve got to do a better job of throwing fewer interceptions. Defensively we’ve got to force more takeways, and on special teams we have to force more of those same takeaways. A lot of time will be invested on that.”
Last season, West Virginia ranked 103rd nationally in turnover margin with 14 takeaways and 20 giveaways, including 15 interceptions.
- Red Zone: “On special teams, we’ve got to do a better job making our field goals in the red zone. Offensively, the focus is making sure we score touchdowns. That was part of our major issues a year ago. Defensively, we have to try to make guys kick — and we didn’t have a single takeaway in the deep red zone. We’re going to do a lot of that.”
West Virginia was downright awful in the red zone in Brown’s first season, ranking 118th nationally with a 73.5-percent scoring rate. WVU’s 47-percent touchdown rate in the red zone was 119th in the country.
- Third-and-medium: “Offensively, we were successful on third-and-short. Third-and-medium was a problem for us. Defensively, the same thing. Not as good as we need to be.”
West Virginia finished last season 109th on third-down offense and 72nd on third-down defense.
No issue more obviously plagued the Mountaineers in Brown’s first season than the lack of a running game. Akron was the only team in the country to finish with fewer yards per carry than West Virginia’s total of 2.6.
“I think we’ve got a good plan for that,” Brown said. “Time will tell. We won’t know until we line up against Florida State. But we’ve got a plan on how we’re going to attack that.”
Brown indicated there will be some simplification on offense.
“I think we need to go back to basics,” Brown said. “Last year we tried to cover some deficiencies we had, and when we did that we got away from some things that were important. That’s how we’re going to handle it.”
This winter was an important step as the Mountaineers looked to strengthen an offensive line that was often beaten due to being overpowered.
“Part of it is a maturation process. Offensive line is difficult to play young in a career. There’s only some special guys who can do it,” Brown said. “When you get in the trenches, there’s a big difference between a 17, 18-year-old and a 20, 21-year-old. And defenses in our league move so much, that picture changes. For the interior guys especially, that’s difficult.
“We got better at getting on people as the year progressed. We just didn’t necessarily get a whole lot of movement. The hope is as we grow and get stronger, we continue to cover them up, but also get movement now.”
Another potential solution is the addition of offensive coordinator Gerad Parker.
Brown will still be the in-game play-caller, but Parker will have full reign in designing each week’s gameplan. Parker was hired from Penn State, where he served as the Nittany Lions’ wide receivers coach — a role he’ll also fill at WVU.
“There’s a true leader in that room now,” Brown said. “That’s not knocking anything we did last year. It’s just a lot of guys were waiting on me and probably weren’t as prepared as they needed to be until later in the week. That’s something that as head coach you have to look inward before you look outward.
“When we had an opening on our staff offensively, that’s the reason we felt strongly about Gerad being our guy.”
Open season at all positions
Brown isn’t naming a starter at quarterback this spring. Or at any other position, for that matter.
“There’s competition at every spot this spring,” he said. “We don’t have a depth chart. We won’t come out of here where we’ll label starters and all that kind of stuff.
“At every spot, from the guys that made all-league — we’re going to compete. Guys are going to earn playing time. It’s a long time before we play down at the Mercedes-Benz Dome.”
He has made specific demands of Jarret Doege and Austin Kendall, each of whom started last season.
“They need to challenge each other better and really push each other to be better. That’s a demand I gave to both of them,” Brown said. “Just like the other spots we have, they’re in competition. At this point, everybody gets reps. We gave them some things they really needed to work on, and from what I can see they are more comfortable with what we are doing.”
Several players will be limited this spring while recovering from off-season surgeries.
On offense, interior lineman Chase Behrndt won’t participate in contact drills to start spring.
The list is longer on defense. Brown mentioned linebacker Josh Chandler, defensive end Tajh Alston, bandit VanDarius Cowan, defensive tackle Jordan Jefferson and defensive back/special teamer Osman Kamara.