MORGANTOWN — First-year West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown played his cards close to the vest during his first spring with the Mountaineers. But with Friday’s first day of preseason camp behind him, he was willing to open up a little more.
Specifically, Brown let on that he was not exactly pleased with where his football team was at during the spring practice sessions. There were depth issues, there were motivation issues and there were leadership issues. Now, however, Brown is much happier with where the Mountaineers are at.
“It’s kind of flag football for the first two days, but I will say this — we are significantly better as a team right now than we were when we finished the spring,” Brown said. “A lot of credit goes to [strength and conditioning coach] Mike Joseph and his staff. A lot of credit goes to some of the leadership we’ve got on this football team. We got quality work in during the summer when the coaches couldn’t work with them.”
That is due in part to a roster that has undergone some significant changes since WVU was on the field this spring. Brown said the Mountaineers had some significant problems with depth at certain positions and were aggressive in looking for transfers who could come in and play within his system.
“I knew our roster was going to change quite a bit,” Brown said. “We weren’t as good as we needed to be in the spring — not only that, we didn’t have the level of energy that I wanted on our football team. Our leadership wasn’t as good as it needed to be and we didn’t have depth. We really had dangerous depth at some positions, so we were really active [in recruiting transfers]. We look like a different football team than we did in the spring. We needed those guys.”
Receiver is one spot on the roster Brown singled out Friday. He said in addition to most of the West Virginia pass catchers being unproven, he wanted to build some depth while also adding some height to the receivers room.
“At receiver, we weren’t good enough in the spring,” Brown said. “I basically said that all spring — we weren’t good enough. We’re significantly better at that position and we added a couple of different bodies.”
One of those bodies belongs to George Campbell, who comes to West Virginia as a graduate transfer from Florida State. Brown said he was pleased with how Campbell, who was one of the top high school recruits in the country several years ago, has fit in with his new teammates and also with the energy he brings to practice — and being listed at 6-foot-4 was a bonus.
“We needed length,” Brown said. “We went from a team that wasn’t very big at wideout to now, we’ve got some significant length. George is listed at 6-4. He’s heavier [than listed]. He came in light because he didn’t go through spring ball, but he’s closer to 200 pounds now. He’s got length. Bryce Wheaton, who maybe had our best summer of anybody, didn’t play real well in the spring but had a really good first day and had a really good summer. He’s 6-4. Ricky Johns is a little over 6-2. T.J. Simmons is a little over 6-2. [Temple transfer] Sean Ryan is about 6-21/2, 6-3.
“So we went from a team that didn’t have a lot of length on the outside to now, we’ve got some guys. You need that in this league. You need to make some explosive plays. The longer you are, I call it ‘open by birth.’ They’re open by birth because there are not a lot of 6-2, 6-3 corners.”
One group that needs as much practice as they can get are the safeties, Brown said. That group was hit hard by the departures via the transfer portal of Kenny Robinson, an All-Big 12 pick last season, and former South Charleston High standout Derrek Pitts, now at Marshall.
“I think we’re a work in progress at safety,” Brown said. “I think those guys are really hungry, intelligent football players, but unproven. [Former cornerback Josh] Norwood has played a lot of football, but this is the first time he has moved to safety and played. So I think it’s going to be a growing process. They need every one of those 25 practices that we get to have in fall camp. It’s a group that’s growing, and obviously we had one major piece that wasn’t here who was [here] in the spring that played a lot of football and was an all-league player. I don’t necessarily know if you just go and replace that overnight. I think it has to be a group effort, and two or three people need to pick up that slack.”
Brown also addressed the eligibility saga with Bowling Green transfer quarterback Jarret Doege and Ryan, the receiver from Temple. Both have applied for waivers to make them immediately eligible, but as of now West Virginia has not heard back from the NCAA.
“Can’t really speak to where he’s at in the process right now,” Brown said. “As soon as we know something on our end, we’ll inform you guys.”
Both Doege and Ryan practiced with the Mountaineers on Friday.
Other roster notes of some significance from Friday’s opening day of preseason camp:
n Offensive lineman Jacob Buccigrossi is not on the West Virginia roster and, according to Brown, will retire from playing football due to injury issues.
n Freshman offensive lineman Brandon Yates made it to Morgantown on Thursday and was on the field for WVU on Friday. Incoming freshmen safeties Osita Smith and Rasheann Lynn, however, were not at practice and have yet to enroll at West Virginia.
n Australian punter Max Haynes, 26, was not at practice Friday and is not listed on the current WVU roster.