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Notebook: Brown wants more urgency leading up to season opener

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — One hundred fifty-six days separate West Virginia and Pitt from the 105th edition of the Backyard Brawl in the 2022 season opener for both teams.

More specific preparation for the September 1 contest against the Panthers won’t come for the Mountaineers until preseason camp in August, though fourth-year West Virginia head coach Neal Brown wants his team already focusing on the Thursday night matchup at Heinz Field.

“We have to have a sense or urgency,” Brown said Tuesday following his team’s fourth practice of spring football. “Without a doubt, it’s something we’ve talked about.”

It’ll mark the Mountaineers’ first matchup with the Panthers since November 2011 when both were members of the Big East. While the opponent itself should provide plenty of motivation for West Virginia, so, too, should the team’s performance in a 2021 season-opening loss to Maryland, one in which the Mountaineers fell behind 17-7 before losing a one-point fourth-quarter lead and the game, 30-24.

“As a staff or as a team, we didn’t do a good enough job on the buildup to Maryland,” Brown said. “We didn’t play very well and that’s why the result didn’t go our way. We’re being intentional about our buildup to this game. It’s something we’ve constantly been mentioning as we started spring ball. It’s something that’ll carryover into summer and obviously into fall camp. We have to have a sense of urgency. In 156 days, we’re going to line up and play.”

The Mountaineers are 2-1 in season openers under Brown, though neither victory (20-13 against James Madison in 2019 and 56-10 against Eastern Kentucky in 2020) came against a FBS opponent, nonetheless one from a Power 5 Conference coming off an 11-3 season and Atlantic Coast Conference championship.

While there is no way for WVU to replicate the atmosphere awaiting in its season opener, Brown and his staff are putting the roster through pressure-packed situations throughout spring in an effort to best prepare them for the regular season.

“Obviously, we don’t have fans in the stands for the most part, but we try to create these pressure situations to make sure that your fundamentals uphold that pressure,” Brown said. “They did a nice job of that on Saturday. Offensively, particularly today, we lost some of our fundamental training that we’ve been striving for.”

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Much of the attention early in spring practice has been centered around installing first-year offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s system.

But Harrell isn’t the only newcomer to the Mountaineers’ coaching staff as Tony Washington was hired in February as the team’s wide receivers coach. A season ago, that title belonged to co-offensive coordinator Gerad Parker, who has since moved on to coach tight ends at Notre Dame.

The 31-year-old Washington came to Morgantown from Coastal Carolina, where he was the Chanticleers’ wide receivers coach for two years after a one-season stint as an offensive graduate assistant at Louisville.

New WVU receivers coach Tony Washington. (Photo by Joe Brocato)

Before he got into coaching, Washington had stints as a receiver for the Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots following an accomplished collegiate career at Appalachian State.

“Tony is a really good teacher. I like his temperament with the guys,” Brown said. “This is a different style of offense than he’s been in. He’s been hungry to learn and that’s one of the things that really drew him here. The things that I like — he played in the NFL and has played in numerous winning programs and he’s played in multiple offenses so he’s able to bring ideas.

“And he’s been a developer. He has a guy that should get drafted from Coastal this year and they have another one that’s coming up the pipe that should be drafted as well. He’s proven recruiting wise. He’s been able to evaluate guys and close. There are a lot of positives. He’s learning the scheme, but I like what I see so far.”

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As for the players Washington works directly closest with, the Mountaineers have an abundance of turnover at wideout. The team’s second and third-leading receivers — Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James — return, though three of the top five receivers from a production standpoint in 2021 opted to transfer, including receptions and yardage leader Winston Wright.

Brown would like to see rising sophomore Kaden Prather elevate his game to become a key factor after getting his feet wet as a true freshman. Reese Smith may also be relied on more. He and Prather both finished the 2021 campaign with 12 catches.

True freshman Jarel Williams and redshirt sophomore Preston Fox, a Morgantown native, made a strong impression on the head coach over the first week of spring practice.

“Kaden Prather had three really good days. He took a step back today, but he’s on the verge of being a special-type player,” Brown said. “Sam and Bryce have been really consistent. Reese was off to a good start and then got hurt and he’ll miss about a week — nothing serious.

“Jarel Williams is taking advantage of those reps being a young guy. Preston Fox, all he does is catch the ball. If I was going to list the traits of a receiver, catching the football would be right at the top. The kid just catches the ball and he makes contested catches, so that’s a credit to him.”

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