The day West Virginia University football fans have been waiting for since last December is finally here.
Saturday marks the start of the 2019 college football season, which is reason enough to circle the date on your calendar, but this opener is a bit different for the Mountaineers.
Neal Brown, the 39-year-old Kentuckian who first found success as an assistant coach at places like Kentucky and Texas Tech before doing the same as the head coach at Troy University, will make his debut as the WVU head coach when the Mountaineers host Football Championship Subdivision power James Madison at Milan Puskar Stadium (2 p.m.; TV: AT&T SportsNet Pittsburgh).
Brown was hired in January after Dana Holgorsen, who served as the West Virginia head coach for eight seasons, departed the program to take the same job at the University of Houston following the 2018 campaign. After a brief search, the WVU administration settled on Brown. Since then, the new Mountaineer coach has done nothing short of win the offseason. Brown has spent a lot of his time since January winning over a fan base that felt, at times, neglected by the previous coach.
At Big 12 Media Days last month in Texas, Brown was asked why he thought the WVU fans had taken such a quick liking to him.
“I think it’s because we’re undefeated,” Brown deadpanned.
Jokes aside, now the hard part begins for Brown, and JMU figures to provide a stern test in his debut game for West Virginia. The Dukes, like WVU, are breaking in a new coach. Curt Cignetti, a Morgantown High graduate as well as a former Mountaineer quarterback and son of ex-West Virginia coach Frank Cignetti, took over at JMU this offseason after a successful run as the head coach at Elon.
“I’m sure this is a special game for him for a variety of reasons ,” Brown said of Cignetti. “When you look at it offensively, when James Madison has the ball, Coach Cignetti is a guy that has an offensive background. I thought they did a really good job last year at Elon, and then their [offensive coordinator] is Shane Montgomery. He’s been a head coach, been an offensive coordinator for a long time. He’s had several successful runs as a coordinator.
JMU has been a fixture in the FCS playoffs in recent years, winning two national titles (2004 and 2016) as well as a runner-up finish in 2017. With a wealth of experience back from 2018, expectations are high for James Madison this season.
“Preseason, depending on what magazine or what poll you’re looking at, they’re either first or second in FCS,” Brown said of James Madison. “They return 20 of 22 starters and [are] a veteran football team. Probably as much experience as any team I’ve lined up and played against as an assistant or a head coach.”
Brown said any season opener can be especially challenging to prepare for, but this one against JMU has a few added layers to it.
“The challenges are significant, I think, in any first game because even if you’re playing somebody who has been there for a while, everybody changes in the offseason as you study and learn,” Brown said. “I think it’s a challenge for them just like it’s a challenge for us. We’re sitting here watching film from where Cignetti was last year at Elon. We’re watching film from where the offensive coordinator was at Charlotte. We’re watching film from where the defensive coordinator was at Maine. The special teams coordinator was at Mercer. Then, oh by the way, you’ve got to watch the JMU personnel. So there is a lot going on in your head while you watch it. They’re going through he same thing, too.”
Brown won’t be the only one making his debut for WVU on Saturday. The Mountaineers suffered significant losses due to graduation, early departures for the NFL and transfers this offseason. Oklahoma graduate transfer Austin Kendall, who was the backup for Sooner Heisman Trophy winners Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray each of the last two seasons, came to WVU in January after Brown’s arrival and was named West Virginia’s starting quarterback last week. The Mountaineers will also need to replace linebacker David Long, the 2018 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and current Tennessee Titan, though the staff has indicated they feel pretty good about how sophomore Josh Chandler has stepped into that role. Those are just two examples of many.
“I think what happens in these opening games is you go back to your strengths,” Brown said. “Whatever you feel like your players do well, that’s what you try to emphasize early on.”
So what are West Virginia’s strengths? Brown has been a fan of WVU’s running backs since the spring and that did not change during preseason camp. The Mountaineer receivers, though in some cases inexperienced, have drawn praise during camp. On the defensive side of things, West Virginia thinks it has a pretty good group of defensive linemen who can help mask some youth and inexperience in the secondary.
“We’re going to be a young football team,” Brown said at Big 12 Media Days. “I think our fan base understands that and there’s going to be some patience.”