Spring Practice Notebook: Day 9

For the first time this spring, West Virginia had a formal officiated scrimmage on Saturday. And while both offense and defense had moments of glory, both showed plenty of weaknesses that will give coaches ample fodder to focus on for the final two weeks of spring drills.

Saturday's session was the first time reporters have been permitted to watch more than a 30-minute period of a Mountaineer practice this spring, and as a result, certain drills were seen that we had not yet witnessed in the first two weeks of practice.

That started with the "V" or "Victory" drill, the series of one-on-one battles staged between offensive and defensive players as a running back tries to reach the end of a set of cones.

The only modification to that drill this season has been to include quarterbacks in it, though only to start each play by handing the ball off to the running back. Previously, the running backs stood at the ready with the ball already tucked away. The change presumably is in place to give quarterbacks and running backs a chance to polish their exchange of the football.

Trey Johnson was the most successful of the runners in the drill, passing all three defenders on two separate occasions thanks both to solid blocking from his teammates and a shifty move or two of his own.

There were no huge hits from the defense in what is always an intense, physical drill. Defensive lineman Jorge Wright did make a nice play, though, slipping around the block attempt of center Joey Madsen on one play and wrapping up the runner quickly.

  • Then came PAT/field goal periods, offering reporters their first chance to see both Tyler Bitancurt and Corey Smith in placekicking action.

    Neither was particularly impressive.

    Bitancurt was 4-of-6 on his kicks, making a point-after, a 23-yard field goal from the left hash, a 28-yarder from the right hash and a 33-yard kick from the left hash.

    But the junior-to-be showed he is still having issues with elevating his kicks, much as he did during a tough sophomore season in 2010. His attempt from 38 yards away was blocked by Travis Bell and scooped up by Terence Garvin, who would have easily returned it for a touchdown if the play was run to completion.

    Bitancurt then missed a 43-yard kick from between the hashes, pushing it to the right just enough to bounce off the upright and fall back to the turf.

    Smith, though, was worse.

    The Inwood native had his PAT attempt blocked, missed a 23-yard attempt from the left hash and didn't even get to attempt what would have been a 32-yard kick. It wasn't immediately clear if a fake was called or a high snap was to blame, but holder Michael Molinari rose up, looked for somewhere to go with the ball and found nothing, ending the play.

  • With that exercise complete, the scrimmage itself began in earnest. It, too, got off to an inauspicious start, as the first team offense failed to gain a first down on either of its first two drives (both of which, to be fair, started at its own 2-yard line).

    The heavy rain that fell throughout almost the entire scrimmage almost certainly played a part in that, as receiver Tavon Austin had the first of his two drops of the day on a simple screen pass that was destined for at least a moderate gain.

    Passing in general was somewhat difficult because of the conditions, but quarterbacks Geno Smith and Paul Millard seemed to adjust after a bit of time of the field.

    Millard, a true freshman, got things rolling for the offense. He showed good chemistry with receiver Ryan Nehlen, completing a 15-yard pass on the second team offense's first play, getting that unit out of the shadow of its own goal posts.

    Later, Millard found Nehlen again, this time on a deep bomb near one sideline, gaining 48 yards to convert on a third-and-13 situation. A couple of Johnson rushes got the ball to the defense's 1-yard line (a full 97 yards from where the drive began), but the running back was thrown for a short loss on second-and-goal and a false start penalty subsequently moved the ball back to the 7-yard line.

    Millard's pass from there was incomplete, and Corey Smith came on to attempt a field goal. But again, he never got a chance to, as the snap went through the hands of Molinari and right to the kicker, who was tackled for a loss to end the drive.

    The first team offense finally got a bit of momentum when Smith passed to Ivan McCartney for 29 yards. Austin's second drop of the day on the next play cost the offense another 25 yards, and defensive end Bruce Irvin got his first of three sacks on a resulting third-and-6, ending that drive.

  • The starting line of scrimmage was moved up to the offense's 35-yard line, and predictably, things started to go a bit better for the white shirts. The first team unit's first drive from there resulted in the first touchdown of the day, ending an 11-play drive with a 1-yard scoring rush from Johnson.

    Running back Daquan Hargrett kept that march alive by just converting on a third-and-5 to move to the defense's 16-yard line. That came two plays after Irvin's second sack set up a second-and-18, and coordinator Dana Holgorsen's offense -- revered nationally for its passing prowess -- surprised most onlookers by running on both that play (a 13-yard gain for Hargrett) and the subsequent third-and-5.

    In all, six of the final seven plays on the drive were runs. The other would have been an easy passing touchdown from Smith to J.D. Woods, but cornerback Brantwon Bowser wisely committed pass interference rather than allow the score.

    It didn't matter, as Johnson plunged in from one yard away on the next snap.

  • Third-string quarterback Brian Athey got his one and only series next, but the freshman signal-caller completed only one of his three passes -- and that one went for no gain, as Andrew Goldbaugh was quickly swallowed up by Wes Tonkery on a third-and-11 completion.

    Other young players were impressive, though. Vernard Roberts had several tough runs and definitely should be in the conversation about the crowded battle for playing time at running back (even though he is listed as an inside receiver on the team's official roster).

    Roberts did fumble on one play late, though, ending a drive with the second team offense that was progressing deep into the defense's territory.

    One player who again didn't see any carries at that position was Ryan Clarke. The big-bodied, fumble-prone runner did not touch the ball and was rarely (if at all) in the action.

  • Once the ball moved to the defense's 35-yard line, the first team offense again managed to score. Smith completed a 23-yard pass to a wide open Austin to convert on a second-and-16 play, then found Austin again to pick up 11 more on a third-and-6.

    That put the ball at the 3-yard line, from where Shawne Alston ran in easily for a touchdown on the next play.

  • Facing a third-and-26, most would expect Holgorsen's offense to air it out. On at least one series for the second teamers late, that didn't happen. Roberts again took a handoff, and again somehow made something happen, gaining 27 yards to move the chains and set up first-and-goal at the 1.

    But things sputtered there. A fade thrown towards Austin from Millard was incomplete. Roberts was quickly met in the backfield by Mike Dorsey on a second down run for a loss of five yards. Millard had Stedman Bailey in the back corner of the end zone on third down, but the pass couldn't be caught in bounds.

    Rather than send out the struggling field goal unit on fourth down, the offense stayed in, and perhaps for the first time all spring, Millard looked like a true freshman on fourth-and-goal. He locked in on his receiver, allowing Dorsey to read the quick slant all the way and easily step in front of the ball for an interception in the end zone.

  • Bitancurt did manage to make a 36-yard field goal on the first team offense's next drive. But that "drive" lasted four plays and actually went for a loss of 10 yards.

  • Millard bounced back from the pick to throw a 7-yard touchdown to Tyler Urban on the final play of the scrimmage on a drive that started at the defense's 9-yard line.

  • Unofficially, Smith was 7-of-13 for 113 yards passing. Millard was 11-of-18 for 149 yards, one interception and one touchdown.

    The first team offense scored on three of its seven drives (though one of those was the aforementioned trip that actually netted a 10-yard loss). The reserves (which is a bit of a misnomer, as top-tier receivers and others played alongside Millard as well as Smith at times) scored on one of their six drives (and that one started at the defense's 9-yard line).

  • West Virginia will hold its first Monday practice of the spring this week, as Saturdays will be off days for the last two weeks of drills.

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