MORGANTOWN — Summer provides some time for college football players to get away from the game, but in the case of those on the West Virginia University roster, this summer has not been much of a break.
It’s not a bad thing.
WVU players have been in Morgantown working out in recent weeks, sometimes — as the rules allow — with the coaching staff, but more often than not it has been up to the players to make sure the bonds and the growth that began for this team with the arrival of new head coach Neal Brown continue to improve through June, July and into fall camp starting in August.
Part of that means running practices like they would in the spring or the fall, just without the coaches.
“We’re doing 7 on 7, we’re doing 1 on 1 against the DBs,” receiver T.J. Simmons said Thursday. “The whole offense is running through plays and going through different stuff like that. Quarterbacks, running backs getting handoffs. We can do pretty much anything we can do at [a normal] practice, it’s just that the coaches aren’t out there.”
The Mountaineers are spending their summer doing more than just practice, of course. WVU players have been a fixture at the Puskar Center this summer, more so than in recent seasons, at least according to All-Big 12 offensive lineman Josh Sills.
“We have a pretty demanding schedule right now with everything,” Sills said. “We’re here in the morning, then we get a couple-hour break, then we’re back for player practices and practices with the coaches sometimes, so you take a nap every chance you get.
“Our load right now is a lot higher than it was last summer. We’re with the coaches more — that’s meetings, practices — we’re doing as much as we can with them. That’s really helping some of the new guys that just got here. They’re really picking it up and doing well in the time we’ve spent with them.”
One of those newcomers who has grabbed the attention of some of West Virginia’s veteran players has been former Capital High standout Kerry Martin, a safety for the Mountaineers.
Martin, a true freshman who graduated early from Capital to get a head start on his collegiate football career in Morgantown in the spring, was mentioned several times Thursday by older players when asked which newcomers were making a name for themselves.
“Freshman Kerry Martin has been doing all right,” sophomore linebacker Josh Chandler said. “He was able to come in mid-year — the same thing I did — and it’s really starting to help him a lot. It’s getting his confidence up more, so you’re starting to see a better side of him.”
Senior defensive end Reese Donahue, a former Cabell Midland High standout, enrolled early at WVU like Martin did and said he knows from experience how much of an advantage those few extra months around the team can benefit a young player. He’s seeing that start to pay off now for Martin.
“Really, it’s like he’s already been here,” Donahue said. “When I look at Kerry it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s not really a freshman, he’s been here.’ One thing that speaks volumes is we were doing ladders the other day outside and he was giving maximum effort and maximum intensity and you could see he was trying to bring people with him. I think he’s come a long way.”
The line to the top of the depth chart at safety got shorter in recent weeks for players like Martin with the departures of All-Big 12 safety Kenny Robinson and former South Charleston High star Derrek Pitts. Both entered their names into the NCAA transfer portal, with Pitts electing to enroll at Marshall while Robinson’s next football destination is still unknown.
The general feeling among the players made available to the media on Thursday was Robinson and Pitts made the choices they felt were best for them, and nobody is holding that against the now-former Mountaineers.
“There’s not grudges and there’s no hard feelings,” Donahue said. “We understand how it is, especially with the dramatic [coaching] change. If it hadn’t been such a dramatic change, it might be a little bit different. It’s just how college football is now. It’s kind of sad to see those guys go, but ultimately we still have, what, 120 guys on the team? You can’t just say one or two people make the team. We have a whole lot to play for.
“If a couple of guys leave, we’ll get a couple of new guys in. You can’t make someone stay and play. If their heart is not in it, you’d be better off finding someone with less talent and letting them play 100 percent.”