MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Neal Brown led his Mountaineers onto the practice field to officially open preseason training camp on the same day that numerous published reports indicated that the college football season is very much in doubt.
It is far from business as usual but Brown is embracing the opportunity to get back to work in person with his players and prepare for a season he hopes will get the chance to happen.
“The most fun I have had professionally over the last few months has been today and during our walk-throughs where we have been able to get on the field and we interact. You are trying to get people better. You are teaching and seeing people get better. You see guys and their demeanors have changed. They have something to look forward to. That has been the best time.
“Our guys have new energy when they are out there. They are able to get off their phones. They are able to get away from all the uncertainty. And they are getting to do what they love to do. That has been a positive experience and I hope it continues.”
Brown has unveiled a new team mantra as they navigate COVID protocols and an entirely new structure for preseason camp. It is ‘Stay Well, Get Ready’. Two separate groups have been formed, the Gold Group and the Blue Group, in the early stages of camp. Those groups will not interact in person.
“We started this a few weeks ago and our motto was ‘Get Well, Get Ready’. But we are well. We went through a little curve within our program where we had some positive cases. We have really been able to flatten that. And we have zero COVID cases currently within our entire program. Now the mission is to stay well. We are going to get ready to play until somebody tells us not to.”
The team practiced in helmets only Monday and an exact timeline for beginning fully-padded practices is not set at this time. The Big 12 has not yet released their league schedule and West Virginia’s scheduled season opener against Eastern Kentucky on September 12 may not happen. FCS football may be pushed to the spring of 2021.
“We are going to be smart in how we practice and how we prepare. This is not a normal camp situation for us. We are going to have more breaks built in. It won’t be as physical. We have guys that are getting into shape. We are not as in shape as we normally would be going into a season.
“We are obviously doing split squad practices. We have at the most two at each position. We are doing a high-tempo drill and then dropping to a low-tempo drill.”
Brown reiterated his support for any players that elect not to play this fall.
“They don’t have to play. They have the opportunity to opt-out but remain on scholarship. We have one student-athlete (Kerry Martin, Jr.) that has chosen to do that at this time. I understand it. I respect it.
“Our team wants to play. Our coaches want to coach. That is important for that to be out there. Obviously, a lot of our guys were a part of the (#WeWantToPlay) movement last night and how incredible that was. I stayed up way later than I usually do or wanted to just because I was moved by not only our players but by players across college football, using their voice and using it in a positive manner.”
Brown believes the structure the WVU football program has put in place, which includes testing and professional cleaning of equipment, is the best environment for his players to be in.
“If we are not playing football, are they getting tested once or twice a week? I am going to say probably not. If they are not playing football, are they going through the same safety protocols? They are going to work out. They are going to do drills. Are they safer doing that here than they are at their local high school or at their local gym? I think absolutely.
“We are not talking about the collateral damage for young people when something they love is taken away from them. And that structure and that discipline is taken away from them. You take them out of their athletics, you take them out of their structure, you take them out of what they really love, what happens? I have seen it. When they were not here for three months, I have seen it with our team.”
The idea of pushing the football season to the spring of 2021 appears to be gaining steam. Brown does not oppose a spring season but adds that eligibility questions from his players will be frequent.
“I think spring football is doable. I think there is plenty of time. I am not in the group that thinks you can’t play some games in the spring and turn around and play in the fall. But if I am a player and I am looking at it, my biggest question is, current rules give you four years of eligibility. And if I am a player I want to maximize my four years of eligibility. That’s where we are going to run into some issues in the spring.”
On the field
As Brown made the rounds through practice sessions today, he complimented both of his veteran signal callers and the newcomer to the group.
“I thought both quarterbacks looked sharp today. (Austin) Kendall and (Jarret) Doege both were in two different groups but I thought they looked sharp. Garrett Greene is a kid that can really move and I am excited about him and his growth.”
New leadership on defense
After Vic Koenning’s departure as defensive coordinator last month, WVU’s defense will be under new leadership. Jeff Casteel has moved from an analyst role to the outside linebackers coach. The scheme will go through few changes.
“We want to be multiple. I think we have the personnel to be maybe more multiple than we were a year ago. We have flexibility with Bryce Brand, VanDarius Cowan, Jared Bartlett, guys that can play on the line of scrimmage and at linebacker. Coverage wise, we are going to have the ability at safety to be more involved in our coverage than we were a year ago.”
Cornerbacks coach Jahmile Addae will coordinate the back end of WVU’s defense while line coach Jordan Lesley will coordinate the front end.
“Jahmile and Jordan are both on the lead over there and they have been working together for the last few weeks. And they will continue to work together. Last year, Jordan called the front a lot and we move our front a lot. They have to be on the same page. And they will. That is what the week of planning will be about, making sure our front and coverages match.
“When we get into some true 11-on-11 scrimmage-type situations, we are going to work through a couple of different scenarios. As we get closer to a game week, a couple weeks out, we will let you know where we are at.”