The Mountaineers will practice for the final time on Wednesday in preparation for the spring-ending Gold-Blue game, at 12:30 p.m. on April 15. Admission is $5, and parking will be available in some lots adjacent to Ruby Memorial Hospital. All proceeds benefit WVU Children's Hospital, a cause that has netted more than $450,000 from WVU's spring games.
"Wednesday's practice will be more important to me than the spring game will be," Rodriguez said of the full-contact workout, "because the spring game will be watered down and very generic scheme-wise. We also won't play as many of the veterans. Wednesday is kind of the last big day for us."
The big news emerging from the ultra-basic 22-period practice session was tailback-turned-corner Pernell Williams' move into the offensive backfield because of a somewhat-difficult transition to defense and the Mountaineers' thinning tailback corps. Besides Steve Slaton, WVU has two useable backs in Tyler Benoit and Jet Best (not counting fullbacks) and the latter has been injured for the past several sessions.
"The experiment has probably ended," Rodriguez said. "He is probably a full-time running back now. He did some nice things picking it right back up on offense. We told him that if he was not going to play at all on defense, we knew he would play some on offense."
Rodriguez was asked if Williams simply looked more comfortable on offense.
"Does he?" Rodriguez said with a laugh. "No, I am more comfortable with him on offense, so that's where we'll put him. He is comfortable on special teams, and, again, we are going to play more than one tailback. We know Jason Colson and Steve Slaton can do it, but outside of that, that's it, so we need another tailback."
If West Virginia were to play today, it's likely Colson, a slot receiver, would play in front of Best, and probably even Benoit. Because of the thinness, the coaching staff slid Williams back to offense, where he first made a splash at Connecticut as a freshman.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said Williams' move was more a result of needing increased depth at tailback than it was a pure inability to play defense. He said that Williams was doing fine for having played corner for just a dozen practices in his career, but that there were just better players in front of him. The lone other moved saw defensive back Leyonne Price practice at wideout, an experiment to see the best fit for the 6-3, 210-pound senior.
"We are still lacking the depth that we want," Rodriguez said. "We have some talent in there (the skill slots and line) with the young guys, but we have a ways to go. But it is important for the young guys to gain strength over the summer. They are picking it up, but we have to get stronger over the summer. Our guys are also not in shape now like they will be in the fall. We do some conditioning now, but not like we do in the summer for camp. They won't play as any plays, so they'll be ready."
Defensive lineman Keilen Dykes remained in red after a left ankle injury. Fullback Owen Schmitt was also in red, and, unable to practice, helped hold for the kickers. Rodriguez said he hoped both could return for the spring game, because they are doubtful for Wednesday.
Receiver Darius Reynard was seemingly at full speed – he ran several solid reverses – after a return from a groin injury, and linebacker Jay Henry went full go after having back problems late last week. Defensive end James Ingram also went full speed. Best remained in green with Darren Brownlee, Nate Sowers and Adam Bednarik. Rayshawn Bolden is walking with a more natural gait after finally coming off crutches last week. His foot, broken in the Sugar Bowl, is still in a cast.
Punt coverage was again a staple of the shorts-and-shoulder-pads practice. The punters worked drops and basic execution before being inserted when the teams went to full units on the drill. Antonio Lewis returned most of the punts. In the skeleton drills, corner Larry Williams had a very good outing, breaking up two passes and being in the right area for most of the snaps. Brandon Barrett made several leaping catches, and snared most of anything thrown his way, an elevation in play after the wideout dropped most of his passes last week.
The skeleton session, which took the most time of any in the practice, was nearly all pass-oriented, an expected aspect of a non-hitting workout. Reynaud and Jollah caught many passes, and tight end Mookie Tate hauled in one leaping grab. There were also a few scuffles, as tempers begin to wear thin as practices mount.
The offensive and defensive lines then squared off, practicing end rushing. One lineman would stand in the tackle spot and defend a tackling dummy, which was rushed by a defensive lineman from the outside. Other than that drill, and one toward the end of the workout in 11-on-11 situations, the opposing lines did not practice together.
"I think the effort has been pretty good," Rodriguez said. "I think our guys realize that even though we had some guys coming back, we are not a team that is just going to show up and beat people. We have to play hard, we have to be disciplined, and we have got to have a great summer and get in shape for camp. We are going to have to be a blue-collar team. We aren't going to be a superstar-laden team, just show up and win like that."
Note: Rodriguez –
On potential breakout players: "Jake Figner has really come on at tackle. That has been good to see. Quinton Andrews, defensively, has had a good spring and showed some good things. I think Johnny Dingle has had a pretty good spring. Some of those guys, it is their first spring and so it is good to see what they are doing. But we have a few more guys who really have to show some things to give us the depth that we need. I am a little concerned about our depth going into fall. I was hoping at the end of spring I would be more comfortable with that, but I am not. Obviously by August, I have to be."
On if WVU can ever be anything other than a blue-collar team: "I doubt it, just because of the way our recruiting is, and the way we have to go out and do a good job of evaluating and developing players and the mindset with which we play. We have no chance if we are not that type of team. I would love to go out there and be able to screw up and win. We'd still coach them the same way, but it would sure be nice. There are very few that can. There are a handful that have to screw up to lose."
On opposing teams dropping games: "This happened two years ago, and we had a pretty significant buyout on this one. Unless the NCAA does get involved, and I don't see how they can because it is an individual thing, I mean, just the timing of it…if they would have done it a year ago, but they drop you in February? People may complain that we are going to play the I-AA team, but what do they expect you to do? Let me tell you, it was a battle to find the I-AA team to play that late. I guess we are still going to play Marshall. I think that's set."