This last week, the West Virginia Mountaineers football team opened Spring practice. This marks the inauguration of a new regime in Morgantown, as Head Coach Neal Brown starts putting his stamp on the program’s future. Without further ado, we present the top three Mountaineers’ storylines heading into Spring.
The biggest story this Spring is the question on everyone’s mind: who will take over the Mountaineers’ offense in 2019? Fortunately, West Virginia has a trio of blue-chip prospects competing for the position. Of the competition, Brown is taking a wait-and-see approach, telling media earlier this month, “[w]hen it is clear, it is clear.” One thing is already known, though: all three will get plenty of repetitions to make their case.
Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall seems to offer the best balance of arm strength, accuracy, and athleticism. Kendall has shown mobility at all stages of his career. Understandably, he has shown some early timing issues. Kendall, after all, enrolled at West Virginia just a couple months ago.
Miami transfer Jack Allison has the most experience with the returning offensive playmakers. He has demonstrated arm strength and confidence in abundance. Allison, however, showed stiffness and hesitation in the pocket during the bowl game against Syracuse. Brown has made it clear that he will expect his quarterback to get the ball out fast. Allison will need to improve in this area to take over the starting spot.
Meanwhile, fans should not overlook Trey Lowe. He arguably offers the most athleticism of the trio. And if the first practices are any indication, Lowe throws the deep ball as well as any. If Brown’s tendencies from Troy carry over to Morgantown, this balance could make Lowe a dark horse contender for the starting nod. At Troy, Brown favored the read option with most passes thrown to intermediate and deep routes.
Who Will Remain?
After the first practice, Brown told media, “We probably have 98, 99 percent of these guys that are really trying to do the right thing, and they are bought in. We have very few people that aren’t.” With a new staff, some turnover seems inevitable. So far, however, the Mountaineers have been fortunate in that they have lost very little. But as the players get used to a new practice regiment, they will become more familiar with the new leadership. Growing pains often follow.
So far, the only name fans heard that raised concern was VanDarius Cowan. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said that Cowan had a few things to work on before he would participate in practice. And while Koenning obviously omitted the details, fans wondered whether Cowan had bought in to the changes. A recent post from him on Instagram offered encouragement. “Bend a lil but never fold . . . Everything up to now has happened for a reason. Remember your why.” Cowan seems focused and ready to contribute, and that has shown through early practices.
While the questions over Cowan seem resolved, the early give and take suggests we will want to closely follow how position battles shape up over the coming weeks. This might dictate as much as anything whether the Mountaineers see some late attrition heading into summer.
Will the Fundamentals Improve?
Over the past five years, Mountaineer fans watched as their teams lost close games and saw momentum shift solely because of poor execution of fundamental football. Even to the untrained eye, the theme was apparent. Lack of discipline led to untimely penalties that stalled drives or negative positive special teams play. Technique errors led to early pocket collapses that led to sacks and turnovers. Poor tackling led to extra yards and points. And special teams ranged from net neutral to liability.
The team’s fundamental identity may have been a perfect reflection of its leader. Dana Holgorsen did a lot of things well, and he has been given less credit than he deserved at times. But Holgorsen was often seen as aloof. Listening to his take on the game, though, his aloofness arose from a high-level view of football. And whether this necessarily meant that he overlooked key details or not, that has certainly been the prevailing perception.
Brown, however, stands in stark contrast. He has made clear that he pays close attention to fine details, and the early input from practices support the claim. The question is whether that focus will rub off and lead to more polish on and off the field.