WVU Sports with Tom Bragg

SEAN McNAMARA | For the Gazette-Mail

(photo by Sean McNamara)

Greetings, gang. As of this writing, it is Sunday night and the West Virginia University football team has three practices in the book so far this preseason.

In the grand scheme of things, that is not a long time. It has, however, been an eventful three days in Morgantown. There is still a lot to be sorted out, obviously, so allow me to clear my head as we get set for the first full week of WVU’s 2019 preseason preparations.

I think the receivers are in a *much* better place than they were in the spring. Losing Marcus Simms was a blow, for sure, but Neal Brown and his staff went out and found some guys who can potentially be playmakers for the Mountaineers. Florida State graduate transfer George Campbell was a five-star recruit coming out of high school, but had trouble staying healthy during his time with the Seminoles. So far in camp for WVU, he has been a noticeable addition to the group of receivers for his size if nothing else, but he is definitely a guy to keep an eye on. Temple transfer Sean Ryan — a standout so far in camp — is awaiting word on an immediate eligibility appeal from the NCAA. T.J. Simmons is still the leader of the receivers, possibly even the offense in general. Sam James had a decent spring and Bryce Wheaton — who did not have an especially great spring — put in a lot of work with the Mountaineer strength and conditioning staff during the summer, and it has shown so far. Brown has good things to say about former Spring Valley High standout Graeson Malashevich, who will likely see some time on special teams. And while we’re at it, don’t sleep on walk-on freshman Frederick (Freddy?) Brown, who made more than a few nice plays on Saturday. Will West Virginia miss the production of guys like David Sills and Gary Jennings? Absolutely. There are, however, reasons to be optimistic about the receivers that maybe weren’t so clear this time last week.

Neal Brown still hasn’t named a starting quarterback, but Austin Kendall sure seems like the No. 1 for now. That is not a big leap to make, but that’s my take after seeing roughly 150 minutes of practice so far. The pecking order seems to be Kendall, Jack Allison then Trey Lowe with Bowling Green transfer Jarret Doege in limbo until WVU hears back about an immediate eligibility appeal. The three that were here in the spring all appear to have improved, and I’m not too worried about the obvious timing issues they have all had with receivers so far in camp — at least I’m not worried yet. During Saturday’s open practice, Kendall and Allison took the bulk of the reps. Both had some good moments, but both also had some not so good moments — like Kendall firing a pass directly to linebacker Dylan Tonkery for the day’s only interception. This is for sure still a competition, but I think the job is Kendall’s to lose at this point. If — and it’s a big ‘if — Doege becomes eligible for 2019, I think this gets much more complicated.

I think the defense has some very good players at the top of the depth chart. That said, depth is a concern everywhere. Defensive lineman Reese Donahue is one of the most experienced players on the team and WVU needs both Dante and Darius Stills to continue their growth on the field. There are some possible impact newcomers on the line — JUCO transfer Taijh Alston arrived in the spring and saw plenty of time with the first time, and all indications are Michigan graduate transfer Reuben Jones will make his presence known. Josh Chandler is kind of a beast for WVU at Will linebacker, and the idea is for VanDarius Cowen to do the same on the other side. Dylan Tonkery is listed as the starter at middle linebacker currently, and it will be interesting to see if he can stay healthy this season. If not, two other state natives Shea Campbell (Morgantown High) and Jake Abbott (Fairmont Senior High) could see some significant playing time. Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey are solid starters at cornerback, but their backups are unproven. The safety position has been a mess because of attrition, with nothing set in stone there just yet.

Evan Staley is possibly one of the best kickers in the Big 12, but camp has not been kind so far. That might not be entirely fair since we didn’t get to see all of Friday’s practice and none of Sunday’s practice, but I’ll pass this along from Saturday. To end practice, the coaches had Staley line up for a 35-yard field goal. I think the idea was if he made it, practice was over. He missed, and the entire team had to do 13 up-downs. Once that was complete, Staley got another shot at the field goal. He missed again, and the team did 13 more up-downs. Not ideal, but possibly not a big deal at all. Kickers are like relief pitchers in that the less you notice them, the better things are probably going. Staley was noticeable at the end of Saturday’s practice. While we’re on the subject of specialists, Australian punter Max Hayes committed to WVU in the offseason but never made it to Morgantown, so add “figure out who is going to punt” to the list of chores for the coaching staff over the next few weeks.

That is all I’ve got for now. Coming up tomorrow — we get to watch the first 30 minute of Monday’s practice then Neal Brown will speak to the media early in the afternoon.