Over the past few seasons, the story in question has been on the front burner, if not the front pages, of discussions surrounding the Mountaineer football team. Along with such seemingly perennial topics such as the search for wide receivers of the distance cornerbacks are playing off the ball, it has been fodder for talk from several different angles.
If you haven't guessed by now, the subject is injuries. A quick search of the archives of past pre-seasons shows a lengthly list of walking wounded from the very first day of fall practice. Hamstring injuries, shoulder problems and recoveries from inexplicably delayed surgeries led to a Christmas-like parade of red and green clad Mountaineers issuing from the doors of the Puskar Center each day. It wasn't uncommon to see ten or 12 players thus tagged as unavailable for full duty, and although there wasn't a lot of discussion as the the reasons why, there was certainly talk as to how it affected the team.
This year, things are different. Only one player, veteran offensive Ryan Stanchek, has been in a red jersey to date, and that has been a simple precautionary move, directed by none other than head coach Bill Stewart. If there were a game this Saturday, the rugged Ohioan would be on the field and in the lineup.
Likewise, only one player has seen a green jersey -- linebacker Reed Williams. His recovery from shoulder surgeries was well known going into the fall. Other than that? Nothing -- or at least, nothing that is keeping anyone from practice.
Before we get to the reasons for this sea change, a couple of observations. First, we know that it's still early, and that nothing but the most rudimentary of thudding contact has occurred. Once the hitting begins, there will surely be some players missing time. Second, it must be recognized that perhaps the law of averages is in play -- after a few seasons featuring more wounded than the Atlanta train depot scene in Gone With the Wind, is it just WVU's turn to enjoy good health?
Perhaps so, but it also might be partly due to Director of Strength and Conditioning Mike Joseph's emphasis on injury prevention. That's a staple of Joseph's plans, and one that he talks about in every interview, player discussion or recruiting pitch. It involves a great deal of stretching and flexibility work, and is easy to discern even in pre-practice loosening up, which consumes more time than in previous years. It was aslo a big part of the summer session, and although Joseph has been on the job just a bit more than half a year, it looks to already be paying dividends.
Of course, Joseph won't publicly take credit or blow his horn over any positive signs generated by his program. Intense in workouts, he's not one to display his emotions on the field. In WVU's early practice sessions, he has moved from group to group, watching agility drills, and keeping a close eye on the players during team stretch. He'll move in to correct a flaw for time to time, but he certainly flies very far below the radar.
It may be too early to attribute the lion's share of credit to Joseph, his staff and his program. In any event, he wouldn't be looking for it. But the lack of injuries thus far, especially those carrying over from summer conditioning work, has been an important factor to date.
It's almost too obvious to point out, but it's critical to have as many players as possible on the field during the preseason, when so much teaching is done. Missing repetitions in the fall puts many players in a hole from which they can't climb out of, and leads to decreased chances for playing time. That, in turn, kills depth. Which can then lead to losses.
Of course, there are still unanswered questions about Joseph's program as well. Will it still produce the endurance needed to play at peak efficiency in the fourth quarter? Will the player's be honed to the razor's edge that led to three consecutive New Year's Day bowl victories over the last three seasons? There's no way to know until the 2008 squad is put into those situations, but if anything can be judged from the results of conditioning so far, then it wouldn't be wise to bet against it.
In the meantime, Stewart and his coaching staff are certainly enjoying the fact that players are ready and available for action now, when so much of the groundwork for the season is laid.