MORGANTOWN — First-year West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown knows he has been dealt a difficult hand this season between injuries, attrition and the general state of the Mountaineer roster upon his arrival to campus in January.
WVU has been up and down in 2019, though lately it has been mostly down. As of Monday, Brown is done with one particular excuse for how West Virginia has performed this season.
Brown banned the “F” word. No, no that one. The word Brown said he won’t be using anymore is “freshman.”
“I think it’s a built-in excuse,” Brown said. “I think it’s a built-in excuse for maybe those kids. I think it’s a built-in excuse for our staff. I think it’s a built-in excuse maybe for myself. Listen, we’re a no-excuse operation. It is what it is. We play a lot of young people. But here’s the deal — we’ve played seven games now. We’re not using that word anymore. They’ve got seven games worth of experience. Some of them have got five. Some of them have got six. But they’ve all played five-plus games, these guys who we’re really depending on, and it’s time.”
The Mountaineers, of course, have a depth chart littered with true and redshirt freshmen. Defensive backs Kerry Martin and Tykee Smith both see significant playing time while Nicktroy Fortune has been the team’s third cornerback all season. Jordan Jefferson, who was 17 when the season started, is a backup on the defensive line.
Jarred Bartlet, Brown said, will likely make his debut this week at Baylor at the “bandit” position. On the offensive side, the Mountaineers currently have six true or redshirt freshmen listed on top of the depth chart ahead of Thursday’s game at Baylor (8 p.m., ESPN) — center Briason Mays, guard James Gmiter, tight end Mike O’Laughlin and receivers Sam James, Winston Wright and Bryce Wheaton.
Throw in receiver Ali Jennings, who does not start but does play, and what you have is a whole bunch of players who are in their first year with the Mountaineers but have been playing a lot. Now, Brown said, is the time for those players to start showing off what they have learned without the crutch of youth to stand on.
“Offensively, I think the future is bright for us,” Brown said. “We’ve started as many as six — I’m not using the f-word anymore — we’ve got a lot of people playing for the first time. There’s a lot of hope.
“Sam James is a guy I’m excited about. Bryce Wheaton is starting to come along. Ali Jennings is going to be a really good player. Winston Wright is going to be a really good player.”
More help from the first-year players appears to be on the way, as well.
Tony Mathis, a true freshman running back Brown and his staff targeted at Troy and landed with West Virginia, had been limited in practice this season due to a knee injury, Brown said. Prior the the Oklahoma game, according to the WVU coach, Mathis returned to full-speed and the idea is to get the freshman into some games down the stretch.
It could provide a nice change of pace for the Mountaineer run game, which has famously struggled this season, and could also help in regard to allowing senior Martell Pettaway to redshirt this season and return to WVU next year.
Brown said if he had to pick one player who stood out during West Virginia’s idle week prior to taking on Baylor this week, it was Mathis.
“He’ll get carries at some point this year,” Brown said.
Brown said Monday that senior cornerback Keith Washington, who missed losses to Iowa State and Oklahoma with a lower-body injury, will be back in the lineup for WVU against Baylor. Brown also said senior Quondarius Qualls, who had been playing at the “bandit” and was hurt at Oklahoma, is unlikely to play against Baylor but not totally ruled out yet against the Bears.