It was a refreshingly routine Zoom call Tuesday as West Virginia University head football coach Neal Brown, several assistants and a couple of players met with the media in preparation for Saturday’s season opener against Eastern Kentucky at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown.
Aside from expressing relief that game week has finally arrived, there wasn’t much talk about COVID-19, precautions and adversity on Tuesday. Instead, it was more about what could be expected against EKU.
From Brown’s perspective, maybe the biggest thing is finally getting a broader understanding of where his team is heading into Big 12 Conference play later this month.
The game will be televised on FS1 with kickoff scheduled for noon in Morgantown. Fans will not be permitted.
“You have a scrimmage, let’s say the offense has success, is that good offense or bad defense?” Brown said. “You always wonder as a head coach. You go into a scrimmage, defense has success, is that good defense or suspect offense? You don’t really know until you line up and play somebody else.”
The evaluations will stretch far beyond the physical play on the field.
Brown said some intangibles seem to be lacking, mostly as a result of the restrictions placed on teams due to the coronavirus. He hopes game week will begin to get those things on track.
“I think chemistry and leadership are the two items we’ve got to work on, discipline too,” Brown said. “Team chemistry, it’s been challenging because that’s something at Troy we did an extremely good job at. I thought last year, by the end of the year, our chemistry got better and we had a lot of buy in because of how much time they spent together away from here. But with COVID and restrictions and protocols, it’s been hard.
“We’ve only been practicing together as a full unit for probably two weeks now. For leaders to emerge, they kind of have to go through and be around the entire team, and that usually happens in winter workouts, which we did, and we thought we had those guys [identified]. And then you have this long break and we didn’t have a normal summer where we had team workouts, we didn’t have those. So we’re trying to grow our team chemistry and we’re trying to identify and continue to build our leaders and put those guys into positions where they can lead.”
In terms of position battles, a depth chart for Saturday’s game can be found on the team’s official website, but Brown warned not to read too deeply into it, adding that everything is subject to change with competition in practices continuing through the week and with coronavirus tests looming on Wednesday and Friday.
“You’ve got a depth chart but those jobs are still very much open,” Brown said. “We’ll be competing all week and whether or not that’s accurate come game day, we’ll see.
“We’re going to play a lot of people. A lot of those freshmen are going to play. I think it’s important. We’re going to play … anybody that has proven to this point that they’re ready to play in a game, we’re going to give them an opportunity.”
Standing across from the Mountaineers on Saturday will be an EKU team that was bludgeoned 59-0 by Marshall over the weekend in Huntington. Brown said he fully expected the Colonels to play a lot better this week with teams usually making a big jump between weeks one and two.
Betting lines for the game were hovering around 401/2 points on Tuesday afternoon, and though the Mountaineers are heavily favored, Brown said his team will use the game as a chance to get better and to showcase how far the program has come between the first and second years of his tenure.
“We’re extremely humbled, excited and I think that getting an opportunity to go out there and perform on FS1 and — unfortunately not in front of our home fans, but hopefully they tune in and watch — that we’ve got to continue this climb that we’re on to get better,” Brown said. “I’m excited for our fans to see it. I don’t think it’s going to be perfect, I don’t think it’s going to be entirely clean, but the effort and physicality will meet the standard.”