West Virginia University football coach Neal Brown has said that one of the more challenging parts of holding split-squad practices has been evaluating each position.
But with a possible scrimmage looming on Saturday and whole-team practices coming as soon as early next week, there will be plenty of evaluation — and decisions — to be made in the near future.
Positional battles that are already raging surely will heat up in the coming days. Several key spots on both the offensive and defensive depth charts look up for grabs.
“We’re logging repetitions and we’re working situations,” Brown said Wednesday. “As far as true evaluations, when we start working as a full unit is when we’ll get our clear evaluations. We have plenty of time, we play on (Sept. 12), we don’t play again until (Sept. 26), we have plenty of time to get our work in. We’ll be ready to play when that time comes, but our true evaluations really won’t start until we get into situations where we’re practicing with the whole team.”
The most publicized battle comes at quarterback where Brown has yet to give an edge to senior Austin Kendall or junior Jarret Doege. Kendall was the team’s starter through the first nine games last season before Doege took over for the final three, leading the Mountaineers to two wins.
But Brown has also been high on true freshman Garrett Greene. Is it a two-quarterback race or three? Brown, who gave the latest update on the battle on Wednesday, isn’t offering many clues.
“There’s been some good and some bad,” Brown said. “I thought both (Doege and Kendall) started slow today but recovered and made some nice plays. We’ve got to do a better job of starting fast. I’ve been pretty pleased with them.
“Garrett Greene is a guy I’m excited about as well,” he continued. “He’s got different level energy and it’s contagious. But I’m pleased with both of them. From understanding situational football and understanding what we’re trying to do offensively both in the passing game and the run game, I’m pleased with both of them.”
For the most part, trying to project who may emerge as a starter at several positions is a guess, aided a bit by the players Brown has praised so far in camp.
Offensively, replacing two starting tackles will be paramount to both reestablishing the team’s run game and protecting whoever emerges in the quarterback race. Junior John Hughes has been the target of that praise of late and he could have the inside track on the right tackle spot.
“John Hughes is really getting better. We need him too,” Brown said. “He’s playing right tackle for us. He had a really good day today, had a good day yesterday and he is much improved.”
At this point, it’s fairly safe to assume that sophomore Sam James will be the team’s No. 1 wide receiver or at the very least, has a starting spot secured. But behind him is a free-for-all at WVU’s deepest position.
One name that has come up consistently in Brown’s press conference is Bryce Wheaton, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound sophomore that caught 12 passes for 201 yards a year ago. Including James, there are six receivers back in the fold this year who caught more passes than Wheaton did a year ago. And that doesn’t count true freshman Sam Brown who has made an early impression already in camp.
Whether or not Wheaton has, or will, do enough to crack the starting lineup remains to be seen but he’s certainly been one of the most discussed players this fall.
“We’re at eight days and he’s had seven really positive and one not-so-good,” Brown said on Wednesday. “Today he had a couple of touchdowns and made some nice plays and it would be huge for us if he could continue to grow, because he’s a really talented guy.”
There could be a battle looming at running back. Leddie Brown entered the season as the odds-on favorite for the starting job after leading the team with 367 yards rushing a year ago. But Brown often has raved about Alec Sinkfield, going as far as to say that Sinkfield has handled the return to practice as well as anyone on the team.
A defensive position battle to watch is at cornerback, where the Mountaineers are trying to replace the graduated Hakeem Bailey and Keith Washington. Sophomore Nicktroy Fortune entered camp as the likely favorite to take one of those spots after appearing in 11 games a year ago. Fortune is currently out indefinitely after losing his mother late last week.
Both senior Alonzo Addae and junior Dreshun Miller have drawn Brown’s praises already in camp and freshman Daryl Porter Jr. has made an immediate splash as well.
“Daryl Porter is a guy that has had three consecutive days,” Brown said. “Because we’ve got some guys out with the stomach bug in the defensive back room, he’s getting pressed into duty and he’s having ton go lineup and play Sam James and guys like that on an every-rep basis and for a true freshman I think he’s holding his own. I’ve been impressed with him. I love how he competes, he’s a student of the game.”
There’s even wiggle room at kicker, where Evan Staley is back for his senior season after missing four games with a leg injury a year ago. Staley made 11 of 17 field goal attempts in 2019. Meanwhile Casey Legg, who will be a sophomore this season, made a pair of kicks in Staley’s absence including a 51-yarder against Kansas State.
Brown hinted at Staley perhaps having the inside track on Wednesday, but like so many battles in all three phases, it’s just conjecture at this point.
“(Staley) had two sub-par days in a row but bounced back today and really played well,” Brown said. “I’ve said this numerous times and I think he’s going to have a really big bounce-back year and that’s my expectations for him.”