MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Hundreds of West Virginia football fans descended on Mountaineer Field Saturday morning to obtain autographs from their favorite players and coaches during the annual Fan Day.
They then had an opportunity to stick around and watch WVU go through a quick practice session.
“Fan Day is a good event,” noted West Virginia head coach Neal Brown. “It was a recovery day practice for us, so we went really light and short. We practice in intervals, so we stressed them yesterday, and tomorrow is a non-practice day.
“For all intents and purposes, camp really starts on Monday,” added WVU’s fifth-year head coach. “The last day in shells (light pads) will be Monday, then Tuesday and Wednesday we’ll be in full pads. We’ll start doing some tackling then, and that’s when it starts separating out.”
Brown admitted that he didn’t think last year’s Mountaineers, who finished 5-7, were physical enough, especially on defense early in the season. He accepted the blame for that because he didn’t believe his practices last preseason physically prepared his club as much as they should.
“We’re going to err on the side of being more physical (this preseason). We didn’t do that a year ago, and I think it hurt us,” acknowledged West Virginia’s coach. “We didn’t tackle very well against Pitt (in the 2022 season opener, a 38-31 loss), and our tackling versus Kansas (in game two, a 55-42 overtime defeat) was atrocious.
“We didn’t have as deep a team last year, so we weren’t as physical during camp, and I think that showed in our play,” he continued. “Since January, we’ve put a premium on physicality. We tackled every day we were legally able to tackle in the spring, and we’re going to use a lot more of those opportunities in fall camp and be intentional about tackling to the ground.”
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While all coaches like to say there is open competition for every job on the football field, in reality, Brown admitted, some of those are actually pretty well cemented. The competition is ongoing for many other spots, though, and that will continue for a couple more weeks until the coaches have to being making decisions in preparation for the Sept. 2 opener at Penn State.
“We try to give everyone two scrimmages, so that’s two weeks from today,” explained Brown. “Now, it will thin out before then, but we try to give everyone two live opportunities in the stadium. Now, some jobs we know. Our starting left tackle is Wyatt Milum. That’s who that is. Our starting center is Zach Frazier, but there are several starting jobs that are open, and there are a lot of back-up jobs and a lot of jobs on special teams that are open. And there are a lot of travel roster spots (that are still open). A lot of those decisions will be made the Sunday or Monday after the second scrimmage. Some will go longer, but you want to give everybody two live scrimmage situations.”
One of the position groups that still appears to have a lot of open opportunities for playing time is at wide receiver. Devin Carter and Cortez Braham are likely at the top of the WR depth chart, but there are plenty of others battling for playing time within the receiver rotation.
“Next week I’ll probably be able to give you a much better opinion on that,” answered Brown when asked about the receivers. “(Marshall transfer) E.J. Horton had a nice day today, his best day. (N.C. State transfer) Devin Carter is the most experienced there, and he’s been the most productive through the spring until now in fall camp. Cortez Braham has been practicing the last two days (after being limited the first couple days of camp with an illness). He competed at a high level in the spring. Preston Fox continues to be productive; he’s going to play. We’ve talked about Preston a lot, but he hasn’t played a ton. He’s going to play this year, though. Then whether it is Noah Massey, Rodney Gallagher has had two good days in a row, Ja’Shaun Poke is going to be in the mix.
“There are a bunch of guys there that can play their way into playing time or they can play themselves out. There is competition, probably more competition than we had a year ago. I’ve been pleased to see that.
“I want to see how they handle it when we start contact, though,” added Brown, who was a receiver himself in college at Kentucky and then Massachusetts. “It’s a whole lot easier to play receiver when you know you’re not going to get hit. Starting Tuesday, they’ve got to have to worry about getting hit, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Gallagher is a young receiver who is getting plenty of practice reps during camp. The true freshman was a highly-regarded prospect coming out of Laurel Highlands High School in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and he’s getting every opportunity this August to show if he’s capable of providing WVU an immediate impact at slot receiver.
“Rodney has added about 12 to 14 pounds since he got here. That’s giving him an opportunity to compete,” said Brown of Gallagher, who enrolled at West Virginia in June and is listed at 5-foot-11, 167 pounds. “He’s blocked a lot better than I probably anticipated early on because he never had to do it before, having played mainly quarterback before. So, he’s been physical, and he’s made some nice contested catches over the middle. That’s been – I don’t think 'surprise' is the right word – but I’ve been pleased with those two aspects.”
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On Saturday afternoon, less than 150 miles from Morgantown, former West Virginia great Chuck Howley was one of nine individuals inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
“It is Gold Jacket day today, and I wanted to recognize Chuck Howley, who was one of the best linebackers to play in the NFL. Big congrats to him and his family,” said Brown of the former Mountaineer (1955-57), who went on to play 15 years in the NFL, including from 1961-73 with the Dallas Cowboys. “Also probably the greatest player in history of Troy (where Brown previously coached) gets his Gold Jacket today in DeMarcus Ware. I want to congratulate both those families. What a tremendous honor.”
A native of Wheeling, West Virginia, and a 1954 graduate of Warwood High School, Howley is just the third Mountaineer player ever, and the first in over 40 years, to be enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, joining Joe Stydahar (inducted in 1956) and Sam Huff (inducted in 1982). Former WVU coach Earle “Greasy” Neale, who is a Parkersburg, West Virginia, native and a West Virginia Wesleyan alum, was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1969.