Fresh Faces Lead to Strong Starts for West Virginia, Kansas
Brown leaning on his young players
MORGANTOWN — Something wasn’t right when redshirt freshman Briason Mays was going through pregame warmups as the third center used by West Virginia this season.
Mays was nervous and his snaps were off target Saturday. That made offensive line coach Matt Moore nervous, too, so Moore decided a pep talk was in order.
“We talk about a strike zone, just like a pitcher. You need to throw a strike every time,” Moore said. “Pregame, he was out there spraying them everywhere. I just went up to him and said, you’re going to be fine. Just relax.”
Mays played every snap in the 44-27 win over North Carolina State and got through his first career start unscathed.
“After the first play, everything calmed down,” Mays said. “I was definitely amped up there in pregame. But he calmed me down. That really helped me a lot.”
Mays is one of the youngsters that new West Virginia coach Neal Brown has turned to. Brown promised many players would see their first action out of necessity and that’s given the Mountaineers (2-1) a lift entering their Big 12 opener Saturday at Kansas (2-1).
West Virginia returned just three starters on offense and four on defense from a year ago. So far this season, 14 freshmen have played.
“As a coach you’d probably prefer them to be a little older, but we got to play the best guys and our young people have shown that they’re ready to play,” Brown said. “The more they play, the better they’re going to get.”
Against North Carolina State, the Mountaineers had three first-time starters on each side of the ball, necessitated in part by injuries.
The offensive line has been a work in progress with eight different starters so far, including Mays, redshirt freshman James Gmitter at left guard and sophomore John Hughes at right guard against the Wolfpack.
At receiver, redshirt freshman Sam James caught nine passes for 155 yards and a score after catching two all of last season. Freshmen Winston Wright had four catches and Ali Jennings had three, including a touchdown, in their first career game.
The parade included three new starters against the Wolfpack on the defensive line: Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones, 17-year-old freshman nose tackle Jordan Jefferson and sophomore Dante Stills, who had two sacks.
Sophomore linebacker Josh Chandler, used primarily on special teams in 2018, has a team-high 24 tackles and a pass breakup. Freshmen defensive backs Kerry Martin, Tykee Smith and Kwantel Raines also have been solid.
The older players on the roster are welcoming the help.
“It’s a huge deal,” said senior defensive lineman Reese Donahue, who has 27 career starts. “Really when you have the opportunity to play young players it sets up success in the future.”
The solid play is also evident at Kansas, which lost half of its starters from a year ago and broke a 48-game road losing streak to Power Five opponents with a 48-24 victory at Boston College .
Freshman linebacker Gavin Potter has one of Kansas’ two interceptions and had five tackles against Boston College. Freshman Kenny Logan made three tackles on kickoffs against the Eagles. Junior linebacker Dru Prox has led the Jayhawks in tackles in his first three career starts.
Other freshmen making contributions for the Jayhawks include linebacker Steven Parker, defensive linemen DaJon Terry and Marcus Harris, tight end Mason Fairchild, running back Velton Gardner, kicker Jacob Borcila and kick returner Jamahl Horne.
Coming off the win, Miles expects similar efforts in the conference season.
“I’m going to ask this team … is this enough? Should we just forget it the rest of the year? And see what they say,” Miles said. “My guess is they can’t wait to practice and prepare. And West Virginia is a good football team and they will be plenty motivated.”