As football camp comes to a close, it's time for some observations, thoughts and opinions on the 2007 Mountaineers.
Team speed is up. Or, at least, it seems as if the defense is getting to the ball faster than it did a year ago. There are certainly more players that can run well on the field, and perhaps some of the defensive tactics are putting those players into position to make plays more quickly. Bandit Eric Wicks is the most noticeable beneficiary of this, as he can be found swooping into passing lanes to break up attempts or slanting into the backfield on a blitz. But he's not the only one. Several defenders stood out in Saturday's scrimmage, including Sidney Glover, Anthony Leonard, Ellis Lankster and Reed Williams, and all have that closing ability and pursuit speed that the coaching staff is looking for.
The concern over nose guard might be lessened a bit. Although the Mountaineers certainly can't afford any injuries on the defensive line, Chris Neild has shown good quickness for a player of his size. He burst through the center-guard gap to help force a safety on one play in Saturday's scrimmage, and shows a great deal of promise. WVU needs Neild and Thor Merrow to hold down the nose position so it can keep Keilen Dykes on the outside of the line.
Position changes also continue to evolve. Eric Jobe, who was moved over from the offensive line to nose earlier in camp, saw snaps at defensive tackle. Running back Eddie Davis has apparently made a move to wide receiver. He played that position exclusively in the scrimmage, and did post-session running with the wideouts as well. That move was made possible by the performances of Jock Sanders and Noel Devine, who look to be #2 and #3 on the depth chart at running back. Sanders ripped off a twisting run of about 40 yards late in the scrimmage, and Devine showed his speed with an explosive kickoff return.
Speaking of that pair, I'll issue my annual caution about overhyping players. It's obvious they have outstanding talent. But they are still freshman, and still make the mistakes that any new player has to learn from and battle through. I think both will end up being very good – and could end up being great. But they shouldn't be expected to gain 100 yards and score two TDs their first time out. Fortunately, they are in the position where they can get their feet wet gradually and grow into their roles.
Defensive back Eain Smith had the hit of the day with a crushing block on fellow freshman C.J. Matthews after Keith Tandy intercepted a pass. Smith peeled back and put Matthews on the ground with a block that Matthews never saw coming. Tony Wood also had a solid hit from his cornerback position.
Is the wide receiver position jinxed at WVU? The passing game has certainly never been to the level that head coach Rich Rodriguez wants it. A series of factors, from injuries to early departures to inconsistent play has plagued the unit, and this year appears to be a continuation of that story. Wes Lyons has missed a number of practices after a late summer procedure on his knee, and although he has returned to the field it's obvious the joint is still bothering him. He sports a big ice bag on the knee after every practice, and isn't able to drive on the ball the way he would like. Alric Arnett has also missed a good bit of time, as has Will Johnson. Johnson did get back out on Saturday, but Arnett was unavailable.
If everyone were healthy, I would guess that Arnett and Johnson would join Tito Gonzales and Darius Reynaud in the top echelon of pass catchers. Lyons could be in there as well, but has missed so much time that it will take him some time to get caught up. Other receivers, such as Matthews, Adam Bednarik and Nate Sowers, can also be included in the mix – but each needs to become more consistent in order to etch their names firmly in the depth chart.
Is the offense going to be turnover prone, or has the defense returned to its ways of two and three years ago, when it forced turnovers by the handful? The balance of offense versus defense is always a difficult one to evaluate when the opponents are your own teammates, but I do think this year's defense appears to be attacking the ball more aggressively. Even on passes that are completed, defenders have been right on top of the receiver and make a hit quickly. And although some of the fumbles were certainly unforced (a couple of center/QB exchanges and at least one drop came without defensive intervention), several of them, including a couple of tipped passes, were created by the blue shirts.
On a related note, I never get too upset when the defense wins a scrimmage. The offense typically is the underdog in such affairs, especially when much of the playbook is held in check. Patrick White didn't run the ball at all, and Steve Slaton had only a few early carries and a couple of pass receptions. Darius Reynaud was also lightly utilized. I would say that's a sizeable chunk of the Mountaineer offense that was held out of the mix. Running offenses in and out also contributes to discontinuity. With the first, second and occasionally the third offensive units alternating possessions on the field, there's not much chance for any one unit to get into the flow of the game. And while that might affect the defense as well, it is something that certainly impacts the offense more.
Charles Pugh continues to be his own worst enemy. The talented spur didn't dress for the scrimmage after again running afoul of team rules. "I'm mad at him," head coach Rich Rodriguez said by way of explanation. With so many competitors for the three safety slots, Pugh can't afford to put himself behind in this manner.
Is Derek Hayes making a move on the offensive line? With Eric Rodemoyer missing some time and several other teammates dressed in red over the past two weeks, Hayes has taken advantage of his chance. He has excellent feet and good balance, and blocked well in Saturday's scrimmage. His emergence will help a great deal with depth issues up front.
Pat McAfee continues to maintain a stranglehold on all three kicking jobs. His punting was tremendous on Saturday, with every kick traveling far and landing between the numbers and the sideline. Such placement helps the coverage team hem the return man against the sideline, although Vaughn Rivers did break free for one solid return. McAfee has also been on-target with his placekicks for much of camp, although I did manage to jinx him in on recent practice session. I noted that he hadn't missed a kick since I had been watching him, and sure enough, his next kick was no good. Of course, it did come from about 45 yards away and barely missed to the right, but that didn't make him any happier.
Finally, the play of the defense in Saturday's scrimmage had coordinator Jeff Casteel very fired up. After his charges forced a turnover on a first and goal situation, Casteel sprinted all the way out the middle of the field, trailing fist pumps and attaboys in his wake. After several months of criticism, much of it undeserved, it was good to see "the Casteel Curtain" as fellow Blue & Gold News scribe Chris Richardson called it, have some success.