Although Thursday’s practice was moved inside due to snow in Morgantown, it didn’t slow down the West Virginia football team in terms of physicality.
It was another full-contact practice with pads, and coach Neal Brown said a couple of players in particular stood out.
“We went full pads, full tackling, a lot of tackling with our twos, minimal tackling with our ones,” Brown said via Zoom call. “Offensively, [sophomore running back] A’varius Sparrow is a guy that’s tough to tackle and he’s physical. He has courage to run the ball up the middle and square guys up. [Redshirt freshman] James Thomas at linebacker had a couple of big hits. Those are the two guys from a contact-level standpoint that stood out today.”
Thomas is an interesting player and, according to Brown, could play a big role in the fall in multiple ways. A 6-foot-2, 228-pounder, Thomas appeared in eight games last season and his development could be huge for a WVU linebacker corps that is thin after losing seniors Tony Fields and Dylan Tonkery.
Brown has been pleased so far with Thomas’ development.
“We’ve got him locked in at the mike linebacker position, we feel that’s going to maximize his ability,” Brown said. “We need him to be a factor on special teams and at linebacker. Every day is a learning and growth opportunity for him.
“He played all over the place in his small high school at Georgia, a good high school program but a small one. Played all kinds of positions, played about every level — safety, linebacker, rush end, running back, quarterback, did a little bit of everything in high school. Good athlete, he’s got really good contact courage and he runs well. We’ve just got to get him where he lines up consistently, he’s more disciplined with his eyes, he plays lower, he’s able to defeat blocks — he and [linebacker] Coach [Jeff] Koonz are spending a lot of time together and we have high expectations for him.”
True freshmen making marks
Brown also hit on some other youngsters and their early development in the program.
That included true freshman defensive backs Davis Mallinger and Andrew Wilson-Lamp, both key parts of the 2021 recruiting class.
Both players are in spring camp and both have officially been assigned positions, with Mallinger being designated a safety and Wilson-Lamp a corner. While both played defensive back in high school, they were primarily offensive players.
The change to strictly defense is just part of the growth process so far, and both bring plenty of potential and promise. Mallinger, a 6-1, 188-pound speedster from Melbourne, Florida, and Wilson-Lamp, a 6-2, 171-pounder from Massillon, Ohio, could be key additions at a defensive back position that is also suddenly thin after Dreshun Miller, Tykee Smith and David Okoli-Vincent all transferred out since the end of last season.
“Wilson-Lamp is playing corner and Davis is playing safety and they’re both coming along,” Brown said. “[Wilson-]Lamp played a little bit of corner as a senior but he was mostly at receiver in high school, and Davis, the same thing, played a little bit of safety and defensive back as a junior but was predominantly a wideout through his high school career.
“They’re learning really fast. Really long, hungry — they practice extremely hard, you can tell it’s important to them by how they prepare. I think they’ll be factors for us this fall in special teams and maybe dependent on their learning curve, defensively.”
Help on the corner
While Mallinger and Wilson-Lamp could make an impact, Daryl Porter Jr. and Jackie Matthews are expected to.
Both of those players were in their first seasons a year ago, with Porter coming in as a true freshman and Matthews having spent a couple of seasons at the junior-college level at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College.
Though Brown isn’t about to start setting depth charts in the spring, the two would figure to be the favorites to take over Miller’s spot across from Nictroy Fortune at the other cornerback position.
There have been rave reviews for Matthews thus far, including out of senior safety Alonzo Addae. Brown said while Matthews is likely a little ahead, both are on a nice trajectory.
“I think Jackie Matthews is a guy that’s had a real solid spring,” Brown said. “You expect that, year two for junior-college players, you see this a lot, where it really starts to click and you’re starting to see that. He’s been solid and competitive. Daryl Porter is coming back, he was out for a couple of weeks so he’s kind of getting back into shape. Had a better day today than he’s had thus far.”