Next (fresh)man up: Mountaineers relishing their unexpected starting roles

WVU Football

Briason Mays was unlikely to see much of the field in week one. On West Virginia football’s depth chart for their James Madison game, the redshirt freshman from Tennessee sat behind Josh Sills and next to Adam Stilley.

Now five games into the season, Mays has gotten three starts at center so far — and he’s getting more comfortable every week.

“You know, I still get nervous, but that first start was something different,” he said. “You don’t know what to expect going in, but kind of now, I know what to expect how things are going to happen.”

A lot has happened since the season opener to put Mays in that position. On top of a pair of poor showings in the run game, injuries and depth chart shuffling caused Neal Brown and his staff to give him the nod, despite the fact he hadn’t yet played a game in college.

The change seems to have worked out — Mays has been the starting center during the Mountaineers’ recent offensive explosion over the last three games, in which they’ve averaged 434 yards and improved their rushing attack enough to contribute 7 touchdowns.

In the midst of the “#climb,” similar situations are happening all over the WVU football depth chart. The injury bug is slowly creeping toward the Mountaineers as they face the possibility that two of their top receivers might miss their matchup with Iowa State on Saturday. Depth is also a concern in the secondary, where they are stretched especially thin after the departure of senior JoVanni Stewart for the season.

“When the safeties were out there warming up, we’re playing Texas — the No. 11 team in the country — and we had four guys warming up in the safety line,” Brown said. “You know, we’re two-deep and that’s it.”

With Stewart sitting out the Mountaineers’ game against the Longhorns, freshman Tykee Smith has already gotten a start under his belt. He was contributing before that, though, and sits as the ninth-highest tackler on the team, and just one behind Stewart.

“He’s one of those guys that’s getting better and better,” Brown said.

Smith is making an impression on his coaches, too. Vic Koenning praised his play against Texas, but was quick to remind that the freshman still has a lot of football to play.

“Tykee needs to keep pressing to get better. We all have our crosses to bear….” Koenning said. “And I think he will. I think he’s that type of kid that really wants to be great.”

Like Mays, Smith unexpectedly stepped into a starting role on the Mountaineer defense, and he’s handled it well. The Mountaineers have trended up over the last several weeks, and will continue to rely on their freshmen to regularly step up on both sides of the ball.

For the players, they are getting valuable big-game experience that will hopefully pay off in the long run. Now, they’re getting an opportunity on a big stage which they are relishing.

“You grow up watching Texas every week, you know,” Mays said, “and then you finally line up against it. It’s like, I thought it was more cool than nerve-wracking.”

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