Spring Practice Notebook: Day 1

When reporters walked in through one of the tunnels at Milan Puskar Stadium just before 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, they were immediately greeted by an unfamiliar sight -- at least for what was only the first day of WVU's spring football practice.

There was the team's offense, adorned in white jerseys (with a few exceptions), on one side. There was a line of scrimmage, on the other side of which stood the blue-clad defense.

Instead of just being a day to work out the rust and focus on lighter, position-by-position drills, this looked like football -- because it was.

The vast majority of the 30 minutes of practice reporters were permitted to watch consisted of "live" drills. Contact was limited, as players were, per NCAA rules, only wearing helmets for protection (no pads). But down-and-distance markers were in use and the drills certainly had an air of competition around them.

The following is a collection of notes from what transpired during the open period of practice:

  • Coaches on the new WVU offensive staff had said the new system coordinator Dana Holgorsen started installing Wednesday might look a bit ugly at first.

    It didn't take long for that to be borne out. On only the second play reporters got to watch, quarterback Geno Smith was intercepted by Brantwon Bowser on an out-pattern.

    Head coach Bill Stewart later said that was the second interception of the day for Bowser.

  • In terms of the more fundamental things, however, coaches said they were pleased with the way offensive players have picked up the basics of the Holgorsen system.

    Both offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh and inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson said there weren't any major mental mistakes in terms of players lining up in the wrong spots or having issues with terminology.

    Of course, Dawson said part of that stems from the way the system keeps players in largely the same place on the field, saying he was confident he could even get this reporter lined up properly with relative ease (but expressing far less faith in my route running ability).

  • Few players were limited on the first day of drills due to injury, but as expected, both Don Barclay and Jeff Braun were in red jerseys and not participating as they continue to recover from offseason surgeries.

    They were joined in red by safety Eain Smith and walk-on defensive lineman Donovan Pearson, who, like Barclay and Braun, are not expected to participate in essentially any of the actual practice portions of spring drills. Instead, the four will be left to take "mental reps."

  • The change in West Virginia's offensive schemes was seen by many as a major blow to the chances of playing time for Tyler Urban, since tight ends have been used minimally at Holgorsen's previous coaching stops.

    However, if the first day of drills is any indication, Urban should be just fine. He lined up at the "Y" receiver position and was a consistent problem for the defense, catching several balls between the hashes for gains of 8-15 yards.

    That impressed his new position coach, Dawson, who shared what he had told Urban shortly after he arrived in Morgantown.

    "If you make plays, you'll get on the field," Dawson said. "Bottom line."

  • Attempting to come up with a list of first- and second-team offensive players early in spring might be a lost cause.

    Players who are presumptive starters at positions like receiver (including Brad Starks, Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin) and running back (Shawne Alston and Trey Johnson) all took reps with quarterbacks Brian Athey and Paul Millard, as well as Smith.

    Athey and Millard both had plenty of chances to show what they could do, as Holgorsen seemed to follow through on his promise of a few weeks ago that all three quarterbacks would see roughly equivalent numbers of snaps in spring drills.

    Neither Athey or Millard looked rattled on their first day of practice in college football. Millard calmly completed a pass to Urban to convert on a third-and-8 play, fitting the ball through a small seam in the defense.

    Athey had his share of highlights as well, but got a rude awakening at one point when defensive lineman Jorge Wright charged into the pocket and blocked one of his passes with both hands before nearly grabbing the interception.

  • Beyond Bowser's two picks, the defensive star of the day was, to no one's surprise, Bruce Irvin. He made multiple plays in the little time reporters got to watch practice, earning a "sack" of Smith at one point (all quarterbacks are wearing gold jerseys, signaling they are not to be touched) and what would have been an easy tackle for loss on an Alston run later.

    Stewart later said that was only a small sampling of what Irvin had done in practice, indicating that "no one blocked [Irvin] all day."

    Indeed, after earning that would-be TFL on Alston, Irvin turned and barked towards the offensive players who were waiting for their chance to get in. "That's 10!" he exclaimed. It wasn't immediately clear what statistic Irvin was referring to.

  • Running backs, like quarterbacks, also saw roughly the same number of reps. Alston, Ryan Clarke and Trey Johnson (who was wearing jersey number 7 as opposed to last year's 21), all had their chances to show their stuff.

    Clarke made one impressive run between the tackles early, showing a burst of speed that belies his larger frame. That drew raves from his new position coach, Robert Gillespie. "Way to get skinny!" Gillespie offered in encouragement.

  • Beyond Johnson's jersey change, other players in different numbers included Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.

    Austin is listed still as No. 1, but was in a No. 8 jersey Wednesday. Bailey's change might be more long-lasting, as the former No. 10 was listed as No. 3 on the roster -- and, indeed, he wore No. 3 during drills.

  • While each offensive assistant is listed as dealing with a particular position, those terms might be a bit overrated when it comes to the way the Mountaineer offense will now practice.

    After the "live" drills were completed, players broke up for small-group instruction on a position-by-position basis. But Dawson didn't work exclusively with inside receivers and Gillespie didn't focus solely on running backs. Instead, all of the offensive positions (except the offensive line, which did work separately with Bedenbaugh) went through three drill rotations.

    Dawson worked with inside receivers first, then the running backs, then the outside receivers, putting them through a ball security drill.

    After each position finished with Dawson, those players would then move to a station with Holgorsen and newly-hired assistant Daron Roberts. There, they ran short post patterns, focused on catching the ball with their hands and ran through the catch, where they were quickly met with a swipe from a large pad, aimed at ensuring they secured the ball after the catch.

    Finally, they moved to a drill with Gillespie, where players would catch a short, soft pass, turn around and quickly chop their feet while moving forward. As they high-stepped, they went through a "gauntlet" of sorts, composed of other players waiting to take their turn, who swiped at the ball in an attempt to jar it loose.

  • As far as the offensive line goes, the final minutes of practice were largely fundamental in nature. Bedenbaugh stressed proper hip angles (emphasizing that players should stay square to the line of scrimmage) and working them through a few drills surrounding proper backpedal technique for pass protection.

    "Good," Bedenbaugh said at one point. "Now we've got to do it faster. Don't think. You'll get it."

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