MORGANTOWN — These are the days of summer when West Virginia’s football team is involved with itself, worrying not about the shadow that Alabama casts over its summer practices.
That’s tomorrow, and what the Mountaineers are doing is working on today right now.
Oh, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson admits that each day there is some Alabama things being talked about or installed, but practice has not yet come down to preparing for the Crimson Tide because the depth chart is not set and all that is necessary for a game plan has not been installed.
“We have to develop a sixth lineman, a seventh lineman, an eighth lineman and a couple of backup receivers. Who’s going to get the specific reps at running back? All that stuff, we will continue to monitor that,” coach Dana Holgorsen said during his media session this past week.
And, he admitted, it’s even tougher on the defensive side.
“Defensively, it’s probably a little trickier because we have more bodies — more guys who are available to identify who does what right and who doesn’t,” Holgorsen continued. “It’s a constant evaluation.
“To set a depth chart doesn’t mean anything is set in stone for the rest of the year, as we all know. We have harped a lot on building depth, which we are. When guys get the starting nod, and they go down, who are the guys we can count on to go in there and perform at a high level to win games. The two-deep is important. It’s not just who are the actual starters. It’s who is going to be able to go in and make plays, as well.”
That is why in the latest practice session, middle linebacker Nick Kwiatkoski, last year’s leading tackler even though he missed a couple of games, found himself working with the second unit, while relatively unknown Al-Rasheed Benton was working with the first team.
“We want to keep guys on their heels all the time to make sure they execute,” Gibson said. “Your job is not secure. Just because we put you on top of the depth chart Day 1, it could all change on Day 2.”
Kwiatkoski is not being beat out in the middle, but he did go down last year and they have to be sure they have someone ready if that happens again … and it isn’t only at linebacker where the emphasis is on depth as much as the starting unit.
The offensive line seems set, but no one has really emerged as a strong backup, and the same goes right now at wide receiver, where they like to run players in and out of the game but have to develop some of the inexperienced, talented backups to the point where they can trust them on the field.
There is really a scramble up front behind the starting group.
A couple of linemen seem to be emerging in Marcell Lazard and Grant Lingafelter, but they aren’t there yet.
“Those two guys have come a long way,” said offensive line assistant Ron Crook. “Again, I’d hesitate to say they’re ready to play in a Big 12 football game. They’ve coming a long way, and they’re going in the right direction. I develop a better understanding of what we’re looking for, what we’re trying to accomplish, and then you throw in all of the stuff you see in preseason camp.”
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The one place where depth isn’t a worry is at running back, where the Mountaineers have to find ways to get everyone touches, from Dreamius Smith and Rushel Shell to Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, with Wendell Smallwood moving from slot to running back and big guys like Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman all capable and looking for a way to play.
“We are starting to get to the point where we can teach all of them,” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said. “It goes back to being a football player, not just a specific guy. You don’t want to just be a running back. We hope that we can get them out there in the slot, catch a ball and make a linebacker or a safety miss them. We’re just trying to get these guys to understand the position.”
“Everyone will contribute in some kind of way. Sometimes blocking is more important than the running play. Sometimes you need to get a receiver free or something. Those are big plays to me.”
And speaking of blocking, that was a shortcoming for Dreamius Smith when he arrived from junior college last year. It has been a point they have been stressing with him ever since.
“He knows if he doesn’t (block), then he won’t play. You shouldn’t have to motivate a guy to do what they’re supposed to do. To me, that’s doing your job of being a running back. We’ve been blunt and upfront with him. He worked hard during spring. He did a really good job in the spring and the summer,” Seider said.
But it’s not just Smith. They are looking for all the running backs to block.
“It’s universal through the room. I think that Dustin Garrison and Buie might be the toughest guys out there. They have the experience, and they’re veterans. They learn from each other.”
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On the defensive side, Gibson has been working personnel through camp without worrying much about the depth chart, but the time has come for him to decide who will be playing and in what situations.
“We know what we want to do. We just have to keep evaluating and see where we’re at with it right now,” Gibson said. “We’ve got to get defensive backs healthy first. (Safety) KJ (Dillon) is a big part of that. Once he’s back, we’ll be able to do some different stuff.
“What I want to do is get fresh bodies out there. So if we’re in a nickel package, we’ll bring an extra defensive back in, and maybe take a nose guard out and put more speed in up front — that kind of stuff. We just have to look. We have to make sure we have cover guys first. (Linebacker Brandon) Golson, (linebacker Edward) Muldrow, (defensive lineman) Shaq Riddick – those guys will hopefully all be on the field getting pressure on the quarterback.”
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Training camp may have changed since the old days due to concern for safety and because of scholarship limitations. No longer are there two-a-days every day, no longer are they in pads every day and no longer do that have full contact every practice.
But there are injuries and bruises and Holgorsen likes to see that … not that he wants his players suffering, but he wants to see how they handle themselves when things get tough.
“My favorite part of the day is when we got out there at 4:30 p.m., when it’s typically its hottest, we go out there when they’ve been inside for three hours, and it’s hot,” he said.
“They’re sore — who can rev the engines up and get going. That’s what I look forward to everyday — who can get going and do it. It’s routine. We’re not going to shake things up too much. I want these guys to understand what to expect and to go out there and be able to self-start themselves and get going.”
Every practice, he seems to believe, should be like the fourth quarter of a long, tough game.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel