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Neal Brown2 (copy)

Neal Brown has encountered unforeseen circumstances in his second year as WVU’s head football coach.

With all of the distractions and adversity the West Virginia football team had to overcome just to be able to practice, it’s a little easy to forget that it’s only the second preseason camp under coach Neal Brown.

The circumstances surrounding camp are certainly different from a year ago. Between still trying to avoid COVID-19 and entering fall camp without a defensive coordinator after Vic Koenning and the university parted ways in late July, it has been anything but a typical time.

That’s likely the case everywhere.

But over the past few weeks, the Mountaineers have settled into the routine of practice with the lofty goal of becoming the nation’s most improved team hanging over their heads.

And while the goals are certainly more advanced in year two under Brown, players said so is the team’s comfort in Brown’s systems.

“There’s a lot more experience,” senior wideout T.J. Simmons said Saturday. “A year under Coach Brown, just the way he coaches and the way he runs practice and the offense is set up, it’s just way smoother. We’ve got a lot of guys that know what to do. Last year it was a lot of guys that were trying to learn the offense and trying to learn how to practice with Coach Brown. I think that year under Coach Brown got us a lot of experience.”

With Koenning’s late departure, Brown split the task of leading the defense between two assistants — Jahmile Addae overseeing the back of the defense and Jordan Lesley overseeing the front. But in an effort to make sure the changes went smoothly, Brown also made it a point early in camp to spend more time around the defense.

And while the terminology and general schemes are unchanged, senior defensive lineman Darius Stills said some noticeable differences do exist from year one to year two.

“A lot more mental,” Stills said. “Last year they were new schemes, new everything, you can’t really get into the mental part as much as the playing. But as this year has gone on, [Brown] has really harped on the mental part of it, because once you know what to do the first year, applying your mental skills to it makes you a better football player in general. Really been harping on the small things that make big plays — getting off blocks or hand placement, what gaps you’re supposed to be in.”

That mental side of things was about all the team could do over the offseason as COVID-19 took away spring ball and physical activity.

Agreeing with Stills’ assessment, Simmons said that the time spent socially distanced and immersed in virtual meetings paid off, and that the team was able to hit the ground running once fall camp opened.

“During COVID we had a lot of online meetings, so whenever we did get back to practice, most of the young guys — almost everybody — knew exactly what to do and knew how to execute plays,” Simmons said. “That’s a complete [180] from last year. Everybody was a little uncertain to the coaching and how a game plan was going to work and what they were looking for. Now that we have more people that have been under Coach Brown, it’s running much smoother.”

Contact Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pritt@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @RPritt.