While West Virginia headed to The Greenbrier for practices on Friday and Saturday, the emphasis for the big guys up front wasn't on enjoying all the amenities of the state's premier resort property. Crook set a tone for the weekend, and was pleased with what he could see from the practices.
"The theme for today and yesterday was battle and compete," said Crook, who both looks and sounds the part of a line mentor. "I thought we did that and gave ourselves a chance to improve. We did some good stuff offensively, and the defense had some good plays too. It was a good back and forth."As is usually the case late in the spring, a handful of players missed time at The Greenbrier, and Crook's group didn't avoid the injury bug. Tackle Yodny Cajuste, who is battling Russell Haughton-James for a starting tackle spot, was held out with a broken finger according to head coach Dana Holgorsen. That cleared the way for Haughton-James to work with the first team, giving him a chance to show what he can do with the frontliners. There was also some deliberate substitutions and pairings of players to see how they worked with each other and how much they have assimilated this spring. Crook will have to review all of the video of practice to see who performed the best, but he was happy with the effort shown by his players on the two days in Greenbrier County. He also discussed the work and improvement of a pair of linemen that has been with the first group this spring.
"Tony [Matteo] is continuing to develop. He has some up and down moments like anyone is going to, but the biggest thing with him is getting comfortable with the guys beside him. That's our biggest emphasis this spring, and we're doing that. His deal is getting used to being beside Tyler, and getting used to being beside Marquis, and getting used to how they work together.
"Marquis Lucas is taking a serious approach to his leadership role and and to doing things the right way. I got onto him a little bit after one practice about bouncing around too much with his body, and the next day he came out and worked on fixing that. He is taking a really good approach right now."
While the enthusiasm from the Crook's group has been good, sometimes the excitement from players given the chance to work with different group or show their abilities in a featured practice setting boils over. Crook noted that's natural.
"It's easy for the guys to excited," he observed. "They want to do well, and they might lose their heads a little bit, so that is always something we have to work on."
Given the demands of working together, Crook will evaluate those abilities almost as much as he does the balance, footwork and punch of each player, as linemen have to be aware of their teammates and pick up on the subtle cues and signals that each use to make adjustments and calls. Center Tyler Orlosky, for example, noted that it might be a nearly imperceptible movement that means nothing to an opponent, but signals a change for a blocking partner. Miss that due to over-excitement, and a play will be doomed before it begins.
Even given the shuffling, the first team line appears to be reasonably set. Crook did not comment on the finality of any battles or name a first team, but through much of the spring the unit of Marquis Lucas, Tony Matteo, Orlosky, Adam Pankey and Cajuste have been with the "ones". If that remains through the fall, much of the work will be devoted to developing the desired cohesiveness, as well as figuring out which others, notably including Haughton-James, Grant Lingafelter and Stone Underwood, will fit into a substitution rotation. Crook wants to be able to play more than five iron men throughout the season, but can't do so if it means a big dropoff in performance or cohesiveness. Those opposing demands are the keys to West Virginia's offensive line depth in 2015.
While initial and individual returns have been positive, there's also still the matter of offensive continuity as a whole. The offense hit several big plays in Saturday's open practice session, but struggled to put together the kind of sustained drives that Holgorsen's offense has been noted for in past years. That's probably the last.hurdle that offenses overcome on their way to being well-rounded units, and with the quarterback battle just settled, wide receivers in flux and the line as described, it's a goal yet to be realized.
"That is a concern," Crook admitted, "but I think it's something that when you are moving people here and there you're going to lose some of that, because guys haven't played next to each other. I do feel like we are going the right way."