Monday marked the return to the field for Stewart and the WVU football team after a week off for the University's annual spring recess. While Monday signified a return to the gridiron in Morgantown, throughout the rest of the sporting world it was opening day for Major League Baseball. Fittingly, West Virginia's first-year head coach played along with the theme by throwing his team a curveball right out of the gate.
Instead of starting practice doing special teams as is almost always the case, Stewart instructed director of strength and conditioning Mike Joseph to put the Mountaineers through a series of sprints. Normally, such workouts are reserved for the end of practice.
"It was a curveball, and it was intended to be a curveball," Stewart said after the spring's fifth workout. "They handled it in fine fashion. I was really pleased. I saw a couple of guys struggle here and there, but for the most part I was very pleased with the way they ran."
The thought process for Stew was quite simple: after having a week off, the message was sent that spring break was in the past (no Lion King references needed), and spring football was back in session.
"A bunch of them went home and ate over break, and that's ok," Stewart noted. "It's good to go home and eat. You can spend too much time on the couch and too much time eating mama and grandmama's cooking. We kind of got that out of them a little bit, and got them back and set a little bit of a tempo, starting practice off with some very good stretching and running some 80 yard sprints.
"They got the rust off," explained the Fairmont State alum. "They got the rust off real early. Did you see what coach Mike Joseph did there? That was awesome."
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When the football portion of practice began, a number of players caught the watchful eye of their head coach. Specifically on defense, current and former linebackers were very impressive.
Senior right tackle Ryan Stanchek, a likely All-America candidate in the fall, departed Mountaineer Field early for an evening class. Stanchek's absence is never a good thing for the Mountaineer offensive line, but was music to the ears of junior defensive end Zack Cooper.
"When Stanchek came off of that left tackle spot, we didn't have anyone who could block Zack Cooper," said Stew. "He was just a man possessed, like a bullet off of that edge."
Cooper moved down to defensive end after finding playing time hard to come by at outside linebacker. The outside 'backer spots are now held down by sophomore J.T. Thomas and senior-to-be Mortty Ivy. Just like Cooper, both Thomas and Ivy were all over the field on Monday.
"I thought Mortty Ivy really did well," Stewart said of the former Gateway Gator. "Mortty, every time I saw him he was flying around. Our defense needs to see that, and needs to have that happen.
"And No. 30. Have you all seen No. 30 out there running around? Wow. J.T. Thomas is…we're fast. I don't know how to say it, but we're just fast. Our defense is fast, and our linebackers are really fast."
Ironically, the swift emergence of Thomas has come in part to his ability to let the game slow down pre-snap.
"He's just playing now with so much more confidence," Stewart explained. "He's getting to where he knows what he's doing before the snap, so when the ball is snapped, he just reacts."
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The offense welcomed back Jarrett Brown, the quarterback turned guard/forward fresh off an appearance in the Sweet 16. (Seriously...has anybody had a more successful 2008 than that guy so far? A Fiesta Bowl win followed by a trip to the Sweet 16.)
"Last night in the team meeting, I welcomed him back and said ‘Hey, I saw you on TV.' Everybody laughed, they thought that was pretty good," Stewart recalled.
While Brown's presence on the basketball team was lauded by head coach Bob Huggins throughout the latter part of the season, his absence from the Puskar Center means he has some catching up to do, particularly with the new terminology installed by rookie offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Jeff Mullen.
However, with four spring practice sessions already in the books prior to Brown's return to the field on Monday, the coaching staff decided to throw the junior quarterback right into the mix rather than having him ease his way back into his familiar role.
"We talked a lot last night about Jarrett as a staff, and we're going to throw him in there," Stewart announced. "He'll have to cram, which we have three weeks to cram before the Gold-Blue game. Jarrett's going to have to spend a little time on his own without coaches looking at film and studying the playbook. He'll be just fine. I don't worry about Jarrett."
Terminology aside, Brown was impressive during his time on the field Monday. The big Floridian lofted a beautiful pass over the middle at one point, and showed all the physical skills that leave Mountaineer fans and coaches alike -- not to mention Brown himself -- wanting to see more of No. 16 on the field.
According to Stewart, that wish will be granted this fall, though the specifics of his role were understandably not revealed on Monday.
"You're going to see Jarrett Brown on the field," Stewart vowed. "Now, I'm not going to tell you where he might be, or if he's at quarterback you might not know where Pat might be. We have a great plan for both Jarrett and Patrick to be on the field together. That is going to be good. That will happen."