MORGANTOWN - Postseason play is on the horizon for basketball, baseball season has just begun, and now its time to add football into the mix. Spring drills are underway in Morgantown but the actual “practice” doesn’t begin until Saturday for head coach Dana Holgorsen and the Mountaineers.
“We’re still lifting a lot, we’re installing things,” Holgorsen said at his press conference Wednesday. “We can go do some instructional stuff outside, we aren’t out there very long, and it doesn’t even really look like football. Saturday, we’ll turn the page and start having a little bit of resistance with each other.”
Holgorsen added he is excited about the 2018 team. Offensively, it’s the most veteran group he has had since his arrival, led by senior quarterback Will Grier and the receiving duo of seniors David Sills and Gary Jennings.
Grier, who suffered a season-ending injury against Texas last fall, has been 100 percent since February and is starting to throw it around.
“He can grip a ball, so just go ahead and start ripping it, but if you don’t use these [shoulder] muscles up here for about six months, then you need to be smart because if you get out there and start ripping it around without these muscles developing, then you can do some real long-term damage,” Holgorsen said. “They put him on a pitch count in January, which cranked up.”
Holgorsen added Grier looks good both physically and mentally and has been helping with the development of redshirt sophomore QB Jack Allison and freshman Trey Lowe.
“It’s going to be good to have a healthy competition with the twos," offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said. "With Trey coming in here, which he should still be in high school, but he has a lot of maturity for a kid. With Jack being here for a year and understanding his role and his familiarity of the offense already, it’s been good to see those two just get out there for a day and run around a little bit."
Backup Chris Chugunov, who finished the 2017 season in place of Grier, is going to graduate and forgo his final year of elligibility. Sophomore quarterback David Isreal decided to transfer from the program earlier this month.
Allison, a transfer from Miami, played an active role on the scout team last season. Lowe, the newcomer, will see action out on the diamond as well as practicing out on the gridiron in the next few weeks.
“The way that works, if we have practice this weekend, then he’s probably going to be here practicing this weekend. If they are going to use him in a game, I may let him skip a practice in order for him to play in a game, and I’ve talked to Randy about this," said Holgorsen. "He’s pretty important to what our future is here, so there is an expectation of him – and he has, he sits in all the meetings and has a great attitude. He’s exactly what you want in a kid that really should actually be in high school."
As for the WVU receiving corps, it remains in tact with Sills, Jennings and Marcus Simms. The only start who won't return is Ka’raun White, who will graduate at the end of the semester. Ricky Rogers, a grad student, will also move on.
Just like most of last season, one of the biggest concerns offensively heading into spring ball is who will emerge as the backups.
“I want to see guys step up. I thought our problem last year is we didn’t have solid backups and our receivers played way too many plays,” Spavital said. “We want to be able to rely on some other people to step in there and make some plays for us so we are not constantly running these kids into the ground so we can give them a breather at times.”
Spavital added Dominique Maiden is making strides, but he wants to see more consistency out of the senior receiver.
Earlier this month, Holgorsen announced the hiring of Marquel Blackwell as the new running backs coach. He replaces Tony Dews, who is now the coach at that position with the Tennessee Titans. Holgorsen wished Dews the best of the luck and said Blackwell is already starting to fit nicely with the program.
With the graduation of Justin Crawford, junior Kennedy McKoy and redshirt sophomore Martell Pettaway are the returners out of the backfield. Redshirt freshman Alec Sinkfield will have the opportunity to see some touches this season.
“You are going to see a great competition out of those guys,” Spavital said.
As far as other coaching additions go, Julian Miller will help with the defensive line, Mike Molinari with the specialists and Tyler Orlosky will assist with the offensive line.
On the defensive side of things, Holgorsen said redshirt junior linebacker David Long and sophomore defensive lineman Lamonte McDougle will miss the spring, as both recover from shoulder surgery. He said they are progressing and will be a full-go by summer.
There are a few positions changes to report for Tony Gibson’s "dawgs." Most notably, redshirt sophomore linebacker Dylan Tonkery will move to Mike linebacker.
“He’s a smart, tough kid. Understands the scheme. This kid has the potential to start at all three linebacker spots within 12 months," defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. "I like where he is at, I just think that is going to be his natural position and let him go get the football,”
Other changes include sophomore Derrek Pitts moving to cornerback and redshirt senior safety Dravon Askew-Henry going to Spur.
“With him and David (Long Jr.) I feel really good about those two," said Gibson. "We need to find one more guy at Sam and then we need to start building our depth.”
One area where lack of depth is also a concern is the defensive line. It looked like WVU was going to return all three starters until Adam Shuler announced his decision to transfer.
Junior defensive end Reese Donahue and sophomore nose guard Lamonte McDougle are the two returners. Former “Last Chance U” star Ezekiel Rose started three games in place of Shuler last season and is a guy that has continued to impress since his arrival last season.
"We feel good about Rose. He has taken on a huge leadership role. He had a great year, he just kept on getting better and better and better,” Holgorsen said. “Reese Donahue and those guys are really solid, they give us a good base. Darius Stills is playing nose now, he has a nose tackle body, and then Brenon Thrift is a guy that’s thick that we’re putting in there as well. But we’re thin.”
Holgorsen added: “Defensively, I feel good about, just based on [Gibson] going into the fifth year, it seems like he’s been here for a while. I just like where the guys are right now, and I wanted to get started. I’m looking forward to a good spring."
The Gold-Blue Spring Game will be held at Milan Puskar Stadium on April 7 at 1 p.m.