Spring Practice Notebook: Day 5

While West Virginia's players were only wearing shoulder pads, helmets and shorts, their Friday workout was far more physical than the one that preceded it on Wednesday -- and that was the Mountaineers' first day in full pads.

Indeed, there was no lack of contact in the portion of practice media members were permitted to watch Friday. Shoulder pads and helmets were popping all over the field, and the requisite trash talk that accompanies those big hits also made plenty of appearances.

As reporters arrived, offensive and defensive players were pitted in an 11-on-11 battle, with the white-clad offense taking snaps from its own 2-yard line and trying to work its way away from its end zone.

The defense, as it did most of the day, held the upper hand. Only a tough run from running back Daquan Hargrett (who fought through a tackle attempt from reserve Wes Tonkery) served to move the ball very far forward.

Shortly after, Ryan Clarke got his chance to take a rep as the running back. But newcomer Josh Francis popped Clarke right in the midsection, jarring the ball free of Clarke's grasp. Fellow linebacker Jewone Snow pounced on the loose ball in the end zone for a touchdown.

That was essentially the end of Clarke's day, as the running back was tasked with running around the perimeter of the field for the remainder of practice as a punitive measure for his inability to secure the football.

Francis, meanwhile, was just getting started. The junior college transfer gave offensive players fits all evening and made several big hits (some that were too big, in fact, for a day players weren't in full pads -- coaches had to emphasize Francis was not to take players to the ground).

He showed impressive speed and agility in getting around blocks and his physical presence is readily apparent.

  • Skill position players continued to work against each other in a skeleton 7-on-7 drill while the offensive and defensive lines moved to opposite ends of the field to work with their respective position coaches. There were no down-and-distance markers in use, and plays were blown dead before tackles were made.

    On one play, Brad Starks (perhaps the star of the day for the offense) made an impressive break from his stance to juke his way around cornerback Keith Tandy (who was in press coverage) before taking off straight upfield. Freshman quarterback Paul Millard found Starks in stride for what would have been an easy 80-yard touchdown.

    Receivers further down the depth chart also took advantage of the opportunity to show their skills.

    Pete Miller (not to be confused with cornerback Pat Miller) was on the receiving end of a pass from Geno Smith -- a throw which barely had enough air under it to keep a leaping Brodrick Jenkins from an interception -- for a gain of more than 30 yards.

    But Pete Miller got a rude awakening shortly thereafter. He was walloped by Pat Miller after fielding a short screen pass, drawing yells of appreciation from the defenders on one sideline. Pete Miller didn't take too kindly to the hit, and promptly jumped up, got in Pat Miller's face mask to share a few choice words before throwing the football at the defender's head.

    Teammates got involved to keep the incident from further escalating, but it reflected the increasingly competitive nature of action between West Virginia's offense and its defense.

  • The skeleton drill showed off a couple of key points about that offense.

    First, Dana Holgorsen's system may be known for putting up gaudy numbers, but at its core, it really seems rooted in the old West Coast offense popularized by Bill Walsh. Many of the routes run on any given play are short-to-moderate patterns.

    The bigger gains, both in the running and passing games, come when the defense tries too hard to account for those shorter throws, leaving lanes for running backs and receivers to chew up bigger chunks of yardage.

    But even short routes aren't always so easy. So much of Holgorsen's system relies on timing between quarterbacks and receivers, and that will be a work in progress all the way up until WVU's first game of the season.

    That was evidenced by Smith, who tried to throw a ball to receiver Ryan Nehlen before Nehlen even broke his route -- something that, when it works, shows high-level coordination between players at those two positions. But this did not, as the ball arrived at the spot long before Nehlen did, and it skipped harmlessly along the turf.

  • The linemen returned to the field after the skeleton drill competed, and the Mountaineers went full-scale 11-on-11 for the last few periods of practice.

    The team's defense again wasted little time adding to its highlight reel. On only the second play of the drill, Smith attempted to throw a quick slant to Starks. But defensive lineman Bruce Irvin was there, having timed his leap perfectly to get both hands on the ball. It fluttered towards the middle of the field, where it was picked off by a diving Najee Goode.

    Not to be outdone, fellow defensive lineman Julian Miller also batted down a Smith pass. Darwin Cook blew up a screen pass that was completed to inside receiver Tyler Urban. Pat Miller again registered a big hit, this time on inside receiver Coley White.

    Millard was intercepted late in the drill by Brodrick Jenkins on an underthrown pass intended for Tavon Austin. Safety Terence Garvin followed that up by stepping in front of a later pass Smith intended for Austin and picking the ball off for what would have easily been a touchdown.

    That's not to say the offense didn't have its share of success. Reserve receiver Willie Millhouse took advantage of a blown coverage and hauled in a pass of about 60 yards from Smith.

    Wide receiver Ivan McCartney did his best Babe Ruth impression, calling his own shot by yelling "Touchdown!" just before the snap on one play, then badly beating Jenkins for what would have been a 65-yard scoring play.

    Stedman Bailey also made a couple of nice catches on underneath patterns, and Hargrett again continued to shine at running back with a couple of additional tough runs.

    But in general, this was a day dominated by the team's defense.

  • The white shirts won't have to wait long to try to take back the upper hand.

    West Virginia will practice again Saturday afternoon, this time in full pads. Be sure to check back with BlueGoldNews.com for full coverage from that session, plus interviews with Mountaineer players and coaches.

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