Simply put, what constitutes a successful spring for a college football team?
As it turns out, that answer is long and convoluted. West Virginia coach Neal Brown certainly hopes for an injury-free and entertaining end to what he hopes ends up being a successful spring.
WVU’s allotment of 15 spring practices will reach its conclusion on Saturday with the team’s annual Gold-Blue game, set to kick off at 1 p.m. at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown. Fans will be admitted up to a 25% capacity limit and the game will air on Big 12 Now and on the ESPN app.
Over the past few weeks and 14 practices, the Mountaineers have pursued positional versatility, individual growth and team-wide cohesion and depth. Whether those goals were met will likely be evident, in part, in the fall.
Brown takes two approaches into the fall, with goals being set on individual and team levels. Those are the parameters for which he will start to evaluate how successful the spring was.
“The individual assessments are so critical,” Brown said. “Who’s ready to play — and what I mean by that, physically, mentally or whatever, who is ready to contribute — and you have 15 practices for each individual to prove that they’re ready, because everybody is getting reps right now, so there’s no excuses. ‘Oh, I didn’t get a chance,’ No, everybody is getting a chance in the spring. So did you show in your 15 practices that you are ready to compete in the Big 12? And if the answer is no, we have to do some developing and work in the summer, and then you get another chance in 14, 15 practices in fall camp to prove that you’re ready to go compete in the Big 12.
“From a holistic program approach, number one, you want to stay healthy, and then it’s about developing our fundamentals and techniques and getting quality reps within our schemes.”
Fans will get their first look at all of that on Saturday, with plenty of things to pique their interest.
Heading into the offseason, there were several questions to be answered. Defensively, who steps up and fills the holes on defense left by Darius Stills and Tony Fields, holes multiplied by the transfer departures of defensive backs Dreshun Miller, Tykee Smith and David Vincent-Okoli? Can that defense match the success of last season?
Will the team’s receiving corps correct mistakes from a year ago, particularly dropped passes? Can Leddie Brown and the Mountaineer running game continue to make strides?
Perhaps the one question that has permeated social media from the fan base the most: Is there a starting quarterback competition?
Obviously, none of those questions are fully answered in the spring, though Neal Brown has praised both quarterbacks, starting with returning starter Jarret Doege.
“He’s one of our most improved players,” Brown said. “Like today, we had a little fourth-and-short play that we ran a naked (bootleg) on and he did a really good job of buying about a second of extra time by backing up and getting the ball off for a first down. On Thursday night, he had a great play where he just kind of moved to the right and found a guy and it was a big third-down completion. That’s what we’re talking about.
“To the untrained eye, I’m not sure that the person just walking in watching as a fan, I’m not sure they notice that, but those little minute things will make a difference for him.”
Garrett Greene, meanwhile, was full contact for last Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I think it’s important for his confidence,” Brown said. “Some of the best things he does is when the pocket breaks down, he’s able to make plays and sometimes we whistle those before maybe they develop. Also, it’s important for the (second-string) defensive line and linebackers, because they have to learn to tackle and make plays in the pocket. And so he did and I was pleased with him. I’ve been pleased with him this spring.”
Spring practices also offer the first chance for returning players to take another step in terms of leadership, and nowhere may that be more important than in the Mountaineer defensive backfield, specifically at cornerback.
Senior Dreshun Miller transferred after the season ended, leaving Nicktroy Fortune as the team’s lone returning starter at corner. Miller’s departure also likely thrusts either Jackie Matthews or Daryl Porter Jr. into the starting lineup. Both were first-year players a season ago, with Porter coming in as a true freshman and Matthews as a junior-college transfer.
So far this spring, both have received positive assessments, especially Matthews, who has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff. But another goal of Brown’s was to continue a process of turning this team into a player-led team, and with that will likely come evaluations of older players toward younger players.
Saturday’s final scrimmage will offer one more chance for those players to take the field in a game-like situation, and Fortune is looking forward to getting another look at the youngsters in his position.
“I’m looking for our young guys to step up, when their name is called, to go out there and execute,” Fortune said. “They watch us do it, so for them to go out there and do the same things we’re doing but maybe even better, to go make a name for themselves. Perfect effort, make sure they’re communicating — just do what the older guys are doing.”