WVU FOOTBALL: Personnel changes evident in first game

Mel Moraes/For the Daily Mail
West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen bumps fists with an unidentified Mountaineer during WVU’s loss to Alabama at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Saturday’s loss to No. 2 Alabama came with two players who used to be regulars playing limited roles for West Virginia.

Sophomore receiver Daikiel Shorts, who tied for the team lead with 45 receptions last season and started nine times in 12 games, didn’t start, didn’t catch a pass and wasn’t targeted until the fourth quarter.

The Mountaineers only started one inside receiver against the Crimson Tide and that went to Jordan Thompson, who matched a career high with five receptions and set a career high with 62 yards receiving, including a personal-best 32 yard tumbling catch.

The junior from Katy, Texas, ended preseason camp as the No. 1 inside receiver, but did drop a critical third down pass in the second quarter.

“The one catch was off the charts,” WVU coach Dana Holgorsen said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “He made a couple really good plays. He made some great catches and had a chance to make some huge catches. We evaluated Daikiel, as well. Daikiel was the next guy in.”

Junior linebacker Isaiah Bruce, who led the team in tackles in 2012 and started 19 of the first 24 games of his career, hardly played defense against Alabama and “did a good job on special teams,” Holgorsen said.

Senior Wes Tonkery won the starting job at the Sam linebacker position in camp and the Mountaineers didn’t substitute for him, Mike linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski or Will linebacker Brandon Golson.

“We thought that Golson, Kwiatkoski and Tonkery had phenomenal camps,” Holgorsen said. “They played a bunch of snaps, and they played pretty good. We’ve talked to Isaiah. If he wants to see the field more, then he needs to show us that he’s ready to step up and see the field. That goes for all backups. Right now, you know who the backups are. It’s their job to compete and show us that they can play more.”

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HOLGORSEN SAID WVU used 56 players against Alabama and called it a “healthy number.” Included in that group was freshman linebacker Xavier Preston, who was slipped into the game late in the first half with the Mountaineers protecting their goal line on second-and-goal from the 1. Running back T.J. Yeldon angled right, but ran into the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Preston.

“He took one snap and he had one heck of a tackle — it was just in the end zone, so they counted it as a touchdown,” Holgorsen said. “It looked like he had good pop and he butted the guy up. He will continue to get more reps. He’s going to be a good player.”

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THE MOUNTAINEERS suffered no notable injuries in the opener, meaning they cane out healthy physically as well as mentally. They are 0-1 for the first time since 2003, and though they lost, they were not defeated.

“They came out determined, is what they came out,” Holgorsen said. “They were disappointed. Coaches were disappointed. Players were disappointed. I wanted it for the fan base really bad. They’re disappointed. The whole moral victory thing is if we wanted a moral victory and pats on the back, then we accomplished our goal. If we want to win championship, which is what we talk about, then the determination needs to translate into a victory the next time you line up. “

While he’s encouraged by how WVU is acting after the loss, he’s given more attention to the way the Mountaineers were before the game. He’d never seen one of his teams as excited to play.

“It was off the charts,” he said. “Our energy throughout the course of the game was at an all-time high. The effort that our guys played with was exactly what we wanted. I told them Sunday that they set the standard for how they are going to play all year. If they can keep up that effort, that energy and that excitement, then we will have a good year.

“There are a lot of things that we need to correct after game one, as everyone does. The one thing that stood out was how we played, not necessarily the result of the game. If we can play like that all year, then we will win a lot of games.”

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WVU RECEIVED SEVEN points in the Associated Press top 25 poll — 11 fewer than Marshall, which won its opener, 42-27, at Miami (Ohio). All of WVU’s points came from Jon Wilner, of the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. He ranked the Mountaineers No. 19, one slot above where he had Marshall.

Wilner, who had Marshall ranked No. 15 in the preseason poll, also introduced Oklahoma State in his poll this week at No. 11 following a 37-31 loss to top-ranked Florida State in Dallas.

“Maybe the Mountaineers are much better than they were last year … and much better than everyone expected them to be this year … and Alabama’s win turns out to be a first-class victory,” Wilner explained in a blog post. “Or maybe WVU is exactly what we thought and the Crimson Tide’s win wasn’t impressive, after all. At this point, we simply don’t know.

“I moved both West Virginia and Oklahoma State onto my ballot because both proved they could play with what we think are top-tier teams.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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