MORGANTOWN, W.Va (WV News) — It was, to be sure, a Big 12 Football Media Day Wednesday unlike any other they’ve ever had before.
Held in Arlington, Texas, it was a session held by a league still carrying a COVID-19 pandemic very much in its rearview mirror and the windshield to the future in need of a strong defroster, fogged up with such unknowns as the transfer portal, a 12-team playoff seemingly certain in a year or two, with NIL issues just beginning to crystalize.
It rapidly became apparent that the Big 12 is a conference that seems to be dominated at the top by Oklahoma and Iowa State with everyone else seemingly cloned off the other.
West Virginia is no different than any other. The Mountaineers’ coach, Neal Brown, feels his team has taken steps forward in the two years since he replaced Dana Holgorsen, even though he had to zig through a depleted roster and pandemic to do so.
Now, despite the blurred vision, when he puts his rose-colored glasses on they show him all images in old gold and blue, itching to get going because he believes there’s a breakthrough for his Mountaineers just over the next hills.
“Last year was so unique, but I was really proud of how our staff and players overcame,” he said to an ESPN audience. “We were really close to having a special year last year. We lost three games where we were really close in the last three minutes.”
He really doesn’t have to remind his fans of that. There was a four-point loss to Texas, a loss to Oklahoma State in a game in which the Mountaineers were within a touchdown until deep into the fourth quarter and a seven-point loss to Texas Tech when a fourth-quarter fumble was returned for a winning touchdown of 56 yards with 8:44 remaining and the score tied.
“That’s where we’re at. We took over a team that lost a lot off the 2018 team. That 2018 team was special. It had five draft picks on offense and (the) defensive player of the year, along with several key players who were lost,” Brown said.
“We were a young team in 2019 and then we lost spring practice and our summer in 2020 but we were able to go from 5-7 with two wins over ranked teams to finish and then we carried it over into 2020 and went 6-4 with a Liberty Bowl win. We were so close to being an eight-win team.
“We moved from being near the bottom of the league in 2019 to being in the middle in 2020. Now we have to take that step, which is significant.
“Offensively, we have to take a step up. Defensively we are where we need to be.”
With Oklahoma and Iowa State dominating a league that also includes Texas and Oklahoma State, moving into contention for titles isn’t easy.
Brown isn’t making any predictions that it will come this season but he believes in the quarterback he has, Jarret Doege, in the running back, Leddie Brown, in his receivers and maturing offensive line on the offensive side of the ball and on a defense that looks as though it suffered severe losses — losing its best player at each of the three levels of defense in tackle Darius Stills, linebacker Tony Fields III and safety Tykee Smith — he sees nothing but possibilities to be as good or better.
“We have to get better on third down and be more explosive,” Brown laid out as keys to the offense this season. “Our receivers and our quarterback played well at times last year but we have to be more consistent at those positions ... and I believe we will be,” he said.
“I feel really good about Jarret Doege. He was probably our most improved player in spring practice. He’s moving better in the pocket. He’s throwing the deep ball much better than he did at any point last year. I’m encouraged.
“The receivers, I think Winston Wright, Bryce Wheaton, Sam James ... those guys have played a lot of football. Sean Ryan would be another one. Those guys are ready to step up. If you look at us offensively, we’ve been young. We played a lot of freshmen and a lot of second-year players the last two years. Now we have veterans that have game experience.”
And the line is built around the many talents of center Zach Frazier.
“He’s our leader up front,” Brown said. “We’re moving him from guard to center. Think about it. He starts nine games as a true freshman and he didn’t graduate early, he didn’t have a summer conditioning program. I think we are just scratching the surface of what he can be.
“For the first time since I’ve been here at West Virginia we have experience up front. We return our left tackle. We return our left guard. We return our center. We have a transfer coming in from Virginia Tech who was a two-year starter. We have a guy returning at right tackle. We signed one of the top tackles in the country.
“As you look at it, that’s really the differentiator. Not only in our league, but across college football. If you have quality players and depth up front on both sides of the line of scrimmage, you have a chance to win.”
And then there’s Leddie Brown, the man who is the featured back.
“We have to take some work load off him with our receivers, our quarterbacks and with some of our running backs. That will be imperative,” Brown said. “We can’t hand him the ball as much as did last year. We have to use him in our pass game. Last year he caught in the 30s. I think we have to get him up into the 50s.
“What he does better than anybody that I’ve had an opportunity to coach so far is break tackles. I think he will have another special type season for us. He’s a physical runner and here’s the thing. He’s grown so much from last year.”
That has Brown drooling at the perspective of maybe splitting him out of the backfield or throwing to him in motion where he can get him one-on-one with a linebacker or safety, the kind of thing that Don Nehlen used to like to do with Quincy Wilson, who was probably the best comparison to Brown when it comes to the physical package.
And all Wilson did, while playing with Noel Devine, was rush for 2,608 yards and 20 touchdowns while catching 25 passes for another 147 yards and one very memorable touchdown that almost upset Miami in 2003 in a play that is often talked about in the same breath as Major Harris’ “wrong-way” touchdown run against Penn State whenever the conversation turns to the greatest plays in Mountaineer history.
“We used him in a lot in routes. I’m excited about him bringing that to Saturday’s offense.”
The defense was one of the nation’s best, topping the nation in fewest passing yards allowed, and it may even improve this year.
“We have two elite players, without question,” Brown said. “I think Dante Stills has the chance to move up and be one of the top defensive linemen in our league, if not all of college football, He understands what’s at stake now. He’s had a great off-season, a really productive spring.
“And Akheem Mesidor is a guy you are going to be talking about for a long time. He’s really talented, a difference maker. We moved him more into an interior role and I think he will be able to take advantage of his quickness,” Brown continued.
But there is one concern.
“Depth,” said Brown. “We’ve got to have some young guys up front step up for us because we lost some older guys who were productive players for us.”