Substantial senior class grows reflective before home finale

Texas quarterback Jerrod Heard tries to avoid West Virginia seniors K.J. Dillon (9) and Nick Kwiatkoski.



MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Senior-week nostalgia abounds at West Virginia, with 20 of them preparing to play their final home game at Mountaineer Field. Because that collection includes 16 players with starting experience, this will be a substantial sendoff.

They range from the quiet type (Nick Kwiatkoski has 282 career tackles and not one memorable quote) to the FBS leader in words-per-minute (K.J. Dillon got flagged for trash-talking on the opening kickoff of the season). And like past WVU senior classes, most came from everywhere but here.

When offensive lineman Marquis Lucas feared “climate change” in 2011, he wasn’t talking about CO2 emissions but rather the move from Miami to Morgantown. For a guy about to make his 28th start, the assimilation process went better than he could have anticipated.

“Three or four years ago, I was like ‘This place is so different,’ but now I love it and I feel like there’s nothing about Morgantown that I don’t know,” Lucas said. “It’s going to be tough to leave—just getting to know the coaches, this state, and the people and how much they love you. Who want to leave that good warmth?”

Dillon, another piece of that Florida pipeline, makes daily calls to his mom in Apopka, though it’s not born of homesickness.

“This is like my second home, and you might as well call this my first home because I haven’t been back to Florida in so long,” he said. “When we have breaks I stay here. I don’t actually go back to Apopka because I’ve got everything I need right here.”

With the starting defense consisting of six seniors—and a seventh noticeably absent in Karl Joseph—they have navigated a bumpy Big 12 indoctrination. From giving up 38.1 points in 2012 (114th nationally) to allowing 33.3 in 2013 (99th) to last year’s 27.6 allowance that ranked 72nd, the climb back toward respectability may be their biggest achievement.

This season the Mountaineers rank 52nd in the FBS and No. 2 in the Big 12 by limiting opponents to 24.8 points per game, something Dillon attributed to seniors taking a bottom-line approach.

“We’re fully grown adults—we’re not going to hold anything back from each other. If Nick misses a tackle, I’m going to get on Nick about that, and if I blow a coverage, everybody’s going to get on me about that. We hold everybody accountable, especially if you’re a senior. We keep it harsh on each other, but we also show each other that we love each other.”

Nose tackle Kyle Rose, on the verge of his 31st start, said the close-knit bubble helped him overcome his spring arrest during which he was tased by police at a downtown bar.

“I was at a low point in my life … so I had to lean on my teammates, had to lean on my family and I had to get back to where I needed to be,” he said.

Among the few homegrown Mountaineers, tight end Cody Clay from Alum Creek wasn’t sure he’d ever become a factor in the program he grew up following. Now his 48 career games match Rose and Shaq Petteway for most in the class.

“I thought I would come here and maybe get on special teams a little bit,” said Clay, who has 20 catches and three touchdowns. “I was a big, white, tight end kid. I never thought of myself as a passing threat and I didn’t think I would ever be big enough to block big ol’ D-ends. I was trying to be a realist.”

The reality of football ending soon strikes Clay as a bittersweet, especially given the structured time demands of being an athlete.

“I say I’m ready to move on to whatever the next phase of my life is, but this is all I’ve known for five years,” he said. “It’s going to be really different adjusting back to not being forced to work out all the time.”

Though the Mountaineers have guaranteed themselves a postseason berth—likely in the Houston or Russell Athletic bowls—Saturday’s home finale against Iowa State has the seniors reflecting.

“There will probably be a lot of tears flying around,” Rose said, “but hopefully they’ll be happy tears after a win.”

West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard celebrates his touchdown throw to Cody Clay during the Mountaineers’ game at then-No. 2 Baylor in October.

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