Mike Casazza: Practice field, not just Mountaineer Field turf, needs a change

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen speaks to players last year during warmups on WVU’s natural grass practice facility.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The 2014 season will be the last season for the artificial turf at Mountaineer Field. West Virginia has one last chance to add to the legacy of a surface that’s so far seen a 36-11 record, three Big East champions, one perfect home record, LSU, Texas, Oklahoma, Brian Kelly, Gene Chizik, Pat White, Bruce Irvin, Tavon Austin, 70-63, 66-21 and 13-9.

The turf’s shelf life is eight to 10 years and the athletic department is prepared to spend somewhere between $1.8 million and $3.5 million on a replacement, the low end for installing just new turf, the high end for first removing the crown beneath the field and putting down the new green stuff. Considering how rare crowns are and how much coaches don’t like them, WVU is preparing for the high end.

The athletic department should be ready to spend even more, though. It’s time to address the problem the Mountaineers have with their grass practice field. There are no plans to do so now, and that’s as much of a problem as the place itself. Simply put, the Mountaineers do not want to practice there because they have well-founded reasons to stay away.

During preseason camp, the Mountaineers spent a small part of one full-contact practice on the natural grass next to the indoor practice facility. They were there for less than half an hour Aug. 4 before coach Dana Holgorsen moved his team down the hill and back inside Mountaineer Field.

And as odd as that seemed, it was a huge relief for the players.

“We were pulling large chunks of grass out when we were trying to cut or push off,” one player told the Charleston Daly Mail. “You shouldn’t be slipping like that in practice. You don’t want a guy to injure himself because of the field and not because something else happened that you can’t control.”

The Daily Mail talked to several players about what happened that day, and WVU was indeed worried about injuries. During the Oklahoma drill, with the media watching, several players slipped and fell during the contact period. In one sequence, offensive lineman Stone Underwood was working against nose guard Brandon Jackson. The grass gave way beneath them and they collapsed. Underwood injured his shoulder and Jackson tweaked a hamstring. Both missed subsequent practices.

What multiple players remembered most was what happened to Dustin Garrison, a running back who tore an ACL on grass at an Orange Bowl practice in December 2011 and who ended up redshirting last season with a hamstring problem. Garrison angled out of the backfield and caught a swing pass. He planted so he could run up the field, but a foot got stuck in the grass. Garrison broke stride and pulled his foot from turf and avoided danger.

The Mountaineers were soon on the move from one field to another.

“It was a mess,” a player said. “It was slippery. Every time a guy made a cut, the grass came loose under his feet.”

The Mountaineers, who will play one game on grass this season at Iowa State, haven’t practiced there since and probably won’t again this season. That wouldn’t be an issue with the players, many of whom said they’d be against going out there unless the coaches could assure them they’d be safe. That seems unlikely.

“I think it would be a problem,” a player said. “Certain guys don’t feel comfortable up there.”

The safety issues are one matter, but performance is another. Players know the turf can give and their legs are at risk. They compensate and focus on their footing, which is smart, but also counterproductive at any position.

“You want to play fast and under control, but you had to concentrate on your steps and coming out of cuts,” a player said. “It definitely slowed you down.”

Holgorsen chose not to comment on the circumstances of his preseason practice last week and simply said, pointing to the stadium, “We’ve got here. That’s where we can practice. That’s what we’ve got. Make do.” Holgorsen nevertheless likes to practice on his practice field. There’s more space than what the team has in the stadium, but he also wants to refrain from practicing on his home field because he believes doing so diminishes the feeling players get playing in the stadium. Players have taken that to heart, too.

Still, he can only practice there a few times during spring and preseason practice before the field conditions deteriorate. The fall weather doesn’t provide any relief. Players said they don’t think the field drains very well, either, which is what they were prepared for on their one camp day there.

“There have been times when it’s wet in the morning after it rains, and you’ve got to expect that, but it was dry that day,” a player said.

For now, replacing the grass with artificial turf is not in the plans. A WVU spokesperson said that “to replace the grass practice field would require a fundraising project.” WVU believes that would cost closer to the $3.5 million approximation for putting new turf in the stadium. A crew would have to remove the grass, pour a new base and a curb and then install an appropriate drainage system before the artificial surface could be installed.

It isn’t imminent, but it’s necessary.

“You want a clean practice. You don’t want things flying everywhere,” a player said. “I don’t think we’re going back up there anymore, at least until they get turf put up there. I don’t think we want to go back up there.”

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