Tops among those is linebacker Mortty Ivy, who was praised by head coach Bill Stewart as having the "spring of springs" after Wednesday's drills. The rising fifth-year senior has slid from the weak to the strong side to allow J.T. Thomas to man the weakside slot and put the best players on the field. Ivy ripped through blocks during WVU's Oklahoma drills and tackled well, bringing ball carriers to the ground successfully, if not with huge hits. Thomas has began to play as the staff knew he could before being sidelined for discipline problems and an ankle sprain. The ultra-athletic 6-1, 215-pounder attacks the pocket well and will likely be the best blitzer in the linebacking corps. His quickness allows him to play the pass effectively, while his size and strength can plug holes and get down the line to slash into seams.
Stewart also cited backup Anthony Leonard for improved play. With starting middle linebacker Reed Williams sidelined for the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, Leonard has had added chances, both on the first, on occasion, and second team. After winning the Danny Van Etten award as the top scout team player in 2006, Leonard lingered as a substitute last season, making 13 total tackles. Now, with two seasons of experience, he seems primed to punch into the permanent two-deep.
"What excited me was that Anthony Leonard stepped up at the middle linebacker position," Stewart said. "Anthony made some nice plays. He is the one who hit Noel (Devine, WVU's tailback) right there in the chin and spun him around on fourth down. We got some plays out of him."
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Jarrett Brown's return has been much ado about nothing. The 6-4, now 219-pounder made a seamless transition from basketball to football after missing the first week-plus of drills as West Virginia advanced to the Sweet 16. Brown threw well on Monday and Wednesday, and should quickly reclaim the second-team slot after taking reps with the third unit. Brown found open wideouts and sliced passes into smaller gaps, though some were dropped by receivers, who stayed after practice to work on catching. The junior-to-be says his playbook absorption is steady, and that he is needing little adjustment in reacquainting his body and performance to football.
"I take my playbook home every night and try to look at it," he said. "It is sort of the same plays we ran last season but with different terminology and a lot of different pass plays because we will throw a lot more. I lost about six, seven, eight pounds at first during basketball, but have since regained the weight."
Teammates agree, acknowledging that Brown has performed better than expected on initial practices. He will be further tested on Friday and in the scrimmage, the first official one of the spring.
"To come straight from basketball a few days ago and hop right into football, I think he has done a tremendous job," receiver Tito Gonzales said. "He is another player that has been in coach Rod's system for two or three years and now you have to learn a new system. Once everyone gets on the same page, that's when the maturity will come as an offense as a whole, from the lineman on down."
Using Brown and quarterback Patrick White at skill slots on plays has been discussed, but neither signal caller said they have seen diagrams of the sets yet. The coaching staff wants to allow the players to understand the offense thoroughly before switches and additions are made. Fans could see such plays in the spring game, though WVU is unlikely to drill them during this weekend's scrimmage.
"That's a lot of threats out there, especially with the talent we already have," Brown said of he and White. "If we get on the field together, I think it would be awesome."
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The rumor of moving Pat Lazear from linebacker to fullback seems to have quieted after the coaching staff slid former nose guard Thor Merrow into the offensive backfield. Lazear said that "coach hasn't said much" about it, leaving the sophomore to concentrate on linebacker and special teams, where he expects to see a lot of time this season because of his speed and physicality.
"Now that we got Thor and everything I don't know if they will need me or not," said Lazera, who has taken just three offensive snaps. "But if they do, I am happy to oblige. The defense seems real comfortable. It seems like we are picking it up. We are having good practices and not having too many blown coverages. I think we are making plays. The defense is definitely stepping up. It's not like the offense has changed too much."
Merrow is settling in at fullback, and has blocked well. He is still adjusting to carrying the ball on a routine basis, something the staff will ask, especially with the new emphasis on I-formation sets. With his mean streak and love of contact, Merrow would seem an ideal candidate to at least split fullback duties once the season begins.
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Lazear also said the front six is feeling comfortable with the secondary play. West Virginia is replacing its entire back five, and has new players at free safety, spur and bandit safety and both cornerback slots. Charles Pugh has been the most impressive thus far, and should lock down one starting safety role if he can refrain from mental mistakes. Quinton Andrews should also start at safety, though the battles at cornerback are likely to rage into the fall and beyond.
"Coach Stewart was talking about chemistry and we have some pretty good chemistry," said Lazear, who is currently playing at strong side behind Ivy. "We are feeling pretty good and doing well."