Neal Brown was very blunt about his roster back in July: his team was going to be young, inexperienced and question marks still loomed as to how the Mountaineers would look.
With three games out of the way this season, Brown has a much better idea of what his time looks like, but they are still young and inexperienced.
“I think it’s something that we’re doing out of necessity,” Brown said. “I think as a coach, you probably prefer to be a little older, but we’ve got to play the best guys and our young people have shown that they’re ready to play.”
The biggest standout on this list is obviously redshirt freshman Sam James, whose historic performance against NC State earned him Newcomer of the Week honors from the Big 12. With such a young roster, though, there are players all over the field who have stepped up for the Mountaineers.
Take Jordan Jefferson, the freshman defensive lineman from Navarre, Florida, for example. Jefferson got the nod against NC State, contributing a tackle and a pass deflection in the Mountaineers’ victory.
“Our young people have shown that they’re ready to play, and I think Jordan Jefferson is a great example of that,” Brown said. “He started the game on Saturday, and he performed really well.”
While Jefferson was stepping up in the trenches, West Virginia called on a couple of freshmen to make plays in the secondary as well. Senior safety Josh Norwood was sent off for targeting early in Saturday’s game, forcing defensive coordinator Vic Koenning again to again turn to a new guy to step up in Kerry Martin. Along with Tykee Smith, the true freshman duo was the crux of the West Virginia pass defense.
That may cause concern for many football coaches, but Koenning says he had to keep his composure.
“[I] Didn’t flinch,” he said. “They both did a good job….You can’t [flinch] because if you start acting a different way or showing lack of confidence, your actions will always speak louder than anything you can say.”
His confidence paid off, as the Mountaineers were able to hold Wolfpack quarterback Matthew McKay to 207 passing yards on the day.
If it weren’t for their offense, though, West Virginia wouldn’t have pulled off their second victory. The Mountaineers requested the services of several new faces to put points on the board, and they were able to get it done — players like Ali Jennings, Winston Wright and the aforementioned James. Those three guys alone contributed a combined for 17 grabs, 196 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.
One of the most impressive newcomers didn’t post any statistics in the win: redshirt center Briason Mays. Before his start, he had never even played center in his football career,
“It’s pretty nerve-wracking at first,” Mays said about the opportunity. “Then after that first play, everything calmed down. So I’d definitely say I was nervous.”
His nerves weren’t apparent on the field, according to Matt Moore, his offensive coordinator.
“[Mays] played with a lot of effort and a lot of energy, and that’s one thing that I notice differently is these guys they play with a lot of effort and a lot of energy, and they did what they were coached to do,” Moore said. “Those are the two things we harped on all week, is don’t let anybody out-effort you and do what you’re coached to do, and good things happen.”
As far as their personnel goes, the NC State game won’t be an anomaly. With such a young roster, Brown will have to keep calling on these players to make plays on the field. As they play more, though, Brown says they should get better every game.
“I think as those young guys — the more they play, the better they’re gonna get,” he said. “It’s not something we set out and said, ‘Hey, we’re just gonna play a bunch of young guys,’ they just happened to be the best at their positions, or at least in the two-deep where they can get repetitions.”