First, not much in terms of Xs and Os. This group is just creeping back into the pacing and exertion of play, and will come off just two drill sessions this Tuesday and Thursday – WVU will hold its NFL Pro Day on Friday – before the Saturday session at 12:45 p.m. inside Wheeling Island Stadium. The Mountaineers held their NCAA-mandated non-padded practices on March 2, 4 and 6 before the open week during spring break. That could be seen as a questionable decision, to simply dip a toe into the drills before going on a week-plus long hiatus. But head coach Dana Holgorsen has never been a believer in what he often terms "not real football" in the non-padded, acclimation drills, and thus it seemed he wanted to get them out into the books and begin fresh with the pads this coming week.
So, with the two practices, and nary a look at the team since a 30-minute open media session on March 2, what insights, if any, could fans gleam from the open practice this weekend? First, it's always beneficial to see who is where and running with what units – i.e. eye the depth chart (one can access the chart on the front page of BlueGoldNews.com). Most will be looking at new quarterback Skyler Howard, and center Tyler Orlosky says the junior college transfer has ran with the ones some in camp. But it would likely be as insightful to check the offensive line, eyeing the battles there and seeing, for example, if Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas are still holding the top spots at left and right tackle, respectively.
Which receivers are rotating in with the first team, and which seems to be a bit further down the depth chart at this time? West Virginia listed Mario Alford and Kevin White on the outside and Daikiel Shorts and Jordan Thompson at the slots on the initial depth chart issues just prior to the commencement of non-padded drills. Has that flipped? Where do vets like K.J. Myers fit against up-and-coming freshman like Ricky Rogers? Do any individuals impress? How about the ball skills?
Same deal at running back, where West Virginia is a deep as anytime in recent history. The A Back depth list was Dreamius Smith, Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell as first second and third teamers followed by Dusstin Garrison and Andrew Buie, among others. The power, or B Backs, were headed by Cody Clay, then Garrett Hope and Elijah Wellman. Do any showcase better pad level and hands? Better burst and power into the line?
The open session will be a chance to get a first look at Shell, and Rogers, Howard and many others. How do they stack up physically? What does West Virginia seem comfortable allowing them to do? How much trust do they place in Howard, even in a session as basic as an open practice in the middle of March? Does Shell get a chance to carry the lumber in short yardage situations, where his power and build are better than any other A back? Or is that reserved for the Bs?
Defensively, the idea is much the same. Does the set truly look quite similar to what is has in the past, as new coordinator Tony Gibson promised? Check out the new backpedal coverage and drop technique as opposed to the shuffle WVU used in its secondary last season. Do any of the freshman show particularly good physical development? How are Christian Brown, Kyle Rose and Dontrill Hyman gelling along the front? Daryl Worley is a permanent corner, and K.J. Dillon will man the newly-named, same-old-execution spot called the spur. Check reserve Keishawn Richardson at corner behind Worley, and see if he lives up to his own expectations as a very good cover corner.
How much will the coaching staff show? And how much of this will be geared toward the crowd, and pleasing them, as opposed to really getting into the nut and bolts of the drills? It's a balance the staff will likely try to maintain, though some would argue it better to shutter the sessions and do some legit work. And while West Virginia doesn't figure to go live in terms of to-the-ground contact, or attempt any live special teams at all in regards to tackling, some base player movements and instincts can be viewed. If the lines get a chance to clash, pay special attention. These areas have among the bigger questions entering summer, but also have some solid talent and skill across the trench. Who stands out head-to-head? How gets a rush on the pocket? Who stands up against the run?
The punt game will also be of major interest on both sides. The starting returner is, of now, Jordan Thompson. He's backed by fellow wideouts Vernon Davis, Jr. and Jacky Marcellus. Do they secure the ball? Make quick, sound decisions? Understand field location and, perhaps if presented, situation? The same for the kickoff returners in Alford, Smallwood and Worley, especially in regards to how explosive the latter can be following a full offseason of collegiate conditioning.
Punter Nick O'Toole has said he feels his leg strength and overall punting acumen is better than it was last season. But, with WVU thus far practicing only in the IPF, O'Toole hasn't had a chance to see his punts as a whole. He said the release and the strike of the ball feels solid, but, as one can see from some of our past video on BlueGoldNews.com, the punts all hit the roof of the indoor facility far before they could be judged. Check on O'Toole's hang time, placement and how the ball turns over midflight. One could also check the time it takes for the ball to be snapped and when it leaves his foot, called a "get off time." The snap itself should reach O'Toole within .65 to .70 seconds, ideally easily on target, and O'Toole's release should take no more than one second. An average hang time for a typical 45-yard punt is 4.6 seconds, with anything more than five considered excellent.
Placekicker Josh Lambert has said he feels far better health-wise after a few months of rest and less kicking. Lambert became fatigued late in the season last year, and said he has learned to better listen to his body and take fewer reps as needed. His kicks have been excellent thus far in the limited media time, but outdoors, with the swirling winds and cooler temps, one could get a truer reflection of Lambert's development and ability for distance and accuracy when fully healthy with a season of experience. The weather for Saturday is forecast as 53 degrees and partly cloudy with just a 10 percent change of rain.