The Mountaineers, entering the final week before the April 19 intrasquad game, held an upbeat, fast-paced session that saw the offense and defense trading blows. Virtually every position coach had reason to gloat and grumble, as the back-and-forth play swung momentum similarly. When one side controlled, the other would negate that with a big play. It showed the overall athleticism – and also the lack of completeness on either side. The defense is still being beaten deep in the pass game, while the offense is being roughed up by the linebackers and at least one emerging corner.
"It was a very quick, spirited session," head coach Bill Stewart said. "On the inside drill, it looked like the defense had the upper hand in that. Then pass skeleton I thought the offense had the upper hand. T was a good teaching day. We went longer (in meetings) to watch the (85-play) scrimmage, then let them come out in shells instead of pads. The way they hustled, I am very excited about the way the Mountaineers are working."
Stewart highlighted pass blocking and the overall defensive quickness as today's major winners. West Virginia excelled as expected on both sides on third down situations, which have been a greater area of focus than in past springs. But the defensive backfield is still struggling against the deeper throws, with WVU completing several passes downfield along gthe seams and sidelines, including one over Quinton Andrews for a long score. That touchdown was one of at least three surrendered by the defensive back thus far in drills. The emergence of Will Johnson as a legitimate tight end threat has also hurt, with the offense able to exploit midrange passes along the seams and to the outside. It began to knaw at the backfield staff, and after a corner failed to play a swing pass properly two series' later, position coach Dave Lockwood showed frustration.
But it wasn't all negative for the defense, which got great play from Mortty Ivy and J.T. Thomas at linebacker and Ellis Lankster in the secondary. The three have strung together several fine performances over the last two weeks, and seem to be emerging as leaders on the defense, along with Scooter Berry.
"Bradley Starks had another touchdown catch from Jarrett Brown, and that was a big time play," Stewart said. "Ellis Lankster, wow, he is really coming on at corner. He has been very difficult to complete anything on. J.T., on a tipped pass and another during two-minute drills – two pretty well-thrown balls – J.T. comes out of nowhere. And the read was good with (Patrick White) and Wes Lyons. That's a tremendous boost. His athleticism and the way he broke, I thought no way. But he tipped it, got the interception and would have scored. That was impressive, and the defense was swarming.
And on offense, I might sound like a broken record, but (converted tight end) Will Johnson might have been the steal of the year out of Ohio. We are very excited about him. It's big catch after big catch. That was a very good move by our coaching staff. He just makes play after play after play."
The practices, with 13 of 15 already completed, don't appear to be wearing on the team as much as in past seasons. Stewart and staff have shortened Friday sessions, and the increased emphasis on passing might tire the skill players a bit more, but doesn't wear on linebackers and corners, as well as receivers and running backs, as much as the running game would. There are fewer blocks to be made, and even with collisions coming harder at times, they are fewer in number.
Players also appear to be enjoying the drills, despite Stewart saying "they are probably tired of hitting each other." Most appear refreshed, and at times even rejuvenated, by the new staff, which is allowing players a wider variety of options within both the offense and defense. The new skills and availabilities and the less focus on mistakes rather than made plays, have increased the bounce in the steps even late in the spring.
"If we can just get through Wednesday and get that scrimmage in on Saturday (without injury), we will be (in good shape)," Stewart said. "We need people, a lot of people, to come out to this (Gold-Blue spring) game. "I hope it is a balmy 80, or at least 70, and sunny with no precipitation whatsoever and I think we will have a good time."
Note: Reserve quarterback Charlie Russell missed Saturday's scrimmage and today's practice because of an illness. Stewart said he has had a temperature of almost 102 degrees. It is unknown when he will return.