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Notebook: Mountaineers prepare to move forward without Frazier; spring practice has added importance for Anderson

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Life without Zach Frazier is something West Virginia football hasn’t dealt with since 2019.

Now that one of the more accomplished offensive lineman in program history is preparing to hear his name called in the upcoming NFL Draft, the Mountaineers are forced to move forward without Frazier.

“It’s different,” West Virginia offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “The kind of player he was made him different.”

A native of Fairmont who excelled on the football field and as a wrestler at Fairmont Senior High School, Frazier made 46 starts over his four-year career at WVU, including 37 consecutive starts at center the last three seasons. He earned first-team All-Big 12 Conference honors in 2022 and 2023, All-American honors in 2021 and 2023 and was widely regarded as the Mountaineers’ best player for a good portion of his college career.

Frazier did not miss a game in college until what would’ve been his final one — a 30-10 WVU victory over North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Mountaineers’ win over the Tar Heels came 32 days after he suffered a fractured fibula in the late stages of a come-from-behind 34-31 win at Baylor.

If there was a positive in the situation for WVU, it was that Brandon Yates got valuable experience at center against UNC after shifting from his previous position at guard.

Yates had minimal in-game experience at center prior to the 2023 season finale, but now finds himself as Frazier’s replacement at that position.

“Nobody is going to be Frazier, but we have Brandon Yates, who’s going to step in and do a phenomenal job for us,” Scott said. “He got a lot of work and in-game reps at center, too. Frazier is one of one. There’s nobody like that kid. He’s absolutely special. But Brandon Yates will step in and do a phenomenal job.”

A redshirt senior from Middletown, Del., Yates entered the West Virginia program a year before Frazier and redshirted in 2019. From 2020-22, Yates played in all 35 of West Virginia’s games and spent the first two of those seasons at left tackle before moving to right tackle in 2022.

Last season, the majority of Yates’ reps came at guard before starting at center against UNC, which he was able to grow more comfortable with through a month’s worth of preparation leading up to the matchup.

While Yates had minimal game experience at center before the matchup with the Tar Heels, he has repped at the position previously in practice through offensive line coach Matt Moore’s emphasis on versatility from his front unit.

“The good thing for us, coach Moore did a great job the past couple years of always rotating guys and being versatile in how we use those guys up front,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of familiarity with communication and playing the position since we moved those guys around last year.”

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Spring football is seen as an important time for less-experienced players to prove their worth and a period where newcomers can get acclimated to a program they recently became a part of.

Yet this spring is particularly important for one of West Virginia’s veterans in redshirt junior tailback Jaylen Anderson.

Ahead of his fourth year in the program, Anderson is the No. 2 running back for most, if not all of spring practice. CJ Donaldson remains limited due to an injury that forced him to miss the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and required surgery.

Excluding Anderson, West Virginia’s only other tailback with valuable game experience is sophomore Jahiem White, who emerged over the second of the 2023 campaign to finish it as the Mountaineers’ leading rusher. Justin Johnson, who like Anderson entered the Mountaineer program prior to the 2021 season, had 160 carries over three seasons at West Virginia, but left the program prior to the bowl game.

Sep 16, 2023; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers running back Jaylen Anderson (0) runs the ball during the second quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

West Virginia’s only other running backs participating in spring practice this year are walk-ons Judah Price and Clay Ash.

Head coach Neal Brown says it’s a matter of consistency for Anderson to show he belongs in the mix for carries. 

“He’s talented. He was more consistent in the winter,” Brown said. “Was OK on Monday, was much better [Wednesday]. He’s been more coachable. He’s plenty talented enough to play here and take on a bigger role, but he has to go out and do it, and it’s more consistency. There’s been some real highs, but there’s been some real lows. He’s capable and we want him to be successful here. He has to go out and make it happen.”

Anderson has 79 rushes for 422 yards and three TDs the last two years. He rushed for 147 yards and one touchdown on 44 carries last season, though all but three attempts came over the first six games and he went the next six without one.

“To this day, he hasn’t put his best foot forward from a consistency standpoint. He has shown in flashes and in games, but he has not shown the consistency in practice for those habits to carryover into games for him to play at a high level,” Scott said. “He’s very aware of that. I’ve always been honest with him, so it wasn’t a situation where he thought one thing or was told something different which caused him to want to leave. He wanted to hang around, because he understood he hasn’t put his best foot forward and his best ball is ahead of him.”

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Brown confirmed earlier in the week that two players are no longer with West Virginia in linebacker Tirek Austin-Cave and defensive lineman Zeiqui Lawton.

Austin-Cave was not with the team throughout winter workouts and has entered the transfer portal with two years of eligibility remaining. He spent his first two seasons at Miami and the next two at West Virginia, where his primary role was on special teams.

Lawton is a former standout at South Charleston High School whose college career began with a redshirt season at Cincinnati. He was with the Mountaineers for two seasons, before being forced to retire from football due to medical reasons.

“It really was a struggle,” Brown said. “He’s a great kid and we fully support him.”

Brown also confirmed former West Virginia player Chris Haering is now working with the program in a consulting role with a focus on special teams.

Haering played linebacker for the Mountaineers from 1986-89. He went on to serve as head coach at Mt. Lebanon High School (Pa.) from 1995-2011 and later served as linebackers and special teams coach at Pittsburgh as ell as special teams and then tight ends coach at Wisconsin.

“He has a lot of experience,” Brown said. “A head coach for a long time and a really successful special teams coordinator at Pitt and Wisconsin.”

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