MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It’s officially game week for Neal Brown’s Mountaineers. The head coach hasn’t released an official starting lineup, but he did give some insight on the depth chart in an exclusive interview for the debut episode of the Neal Brown Show.
As he has been all camp, Brown was quiet on the topic of quarterbacks but did touch on all other positions.
The battle for right tackle is still ongoing. Zach Frazier will get the nod a center, James Gmiter at left guard followed by Wyatt Milum at left tackle. Doug Nester was expected to be the starting right guard, but it seems his position could be determined by who rounds out the starting five.
“Doug Nester will start for sure, it’s just a matter of what position he will go at. I think Jordan White, Brandon Yates, Ja’Quay Hubbard, those guys will all see time,” Brown said. “As we go through our game week preparation, the best five will start and the best five that have success in the game will play the most.
Brown added that he expects to rotate seven offensive linemen to start the season.
Regarding tight ends, the head coach said the 2022 lineup consists of “the most depth and best quality we’ve had” at the position.
“The way the game is played now, you really need to have a guy on the edge who can block. The thing Mike (O’Laughlin) gives us is some versatility. He can go play in space. He’s definitely a vertical threat in the pass game,” Brown said. “Graham (Harrell) played a lot of two tight end sets last year at USC so he will definitely utilize them.”
O’Laughlin missed the spring season and the start of camp due to an injury he suffered last season. He has practiced the past several games and is working on getting back into football shape.
“Cardiovascular he’s fine. He’s got good confidence in the leg, which we wouldn’t let him participate if he didn’t. He’s going to help us – him and Brian Polendey. Treylan Davis will be the third. He’s had a really nice fall camp. He’s shown he is ready to play.”
Bryce-Ford Wheaton, Sam James, Kaden Prather, Reese Smith and Cortez Braham will be WVU’s primary pass catchers. Those are the five with whom Brown feels “comfortable.”
“Preston Fox, Jeremiah Aaron, and Grayson Malashevich, those guys can play into a role, but right now, I would say five will definitely participate.”
Braham, a transfer from Hutchinson CC, is the only newcomer to the program in that five-man rotation. He’s left quite the impression since his arrival.
“He did a really nice job in the summer with our OTAs. He’s a quick learner and made a lot of plays,” Brown said. “I say this to receivers a lot, and it’s not in a smart way at all, just matter of factly – if you want to play you actually have to make plays. We aren’t earning playing time based on potential. You actually have to make plays and catches and he’s did all that through fall camp.”
Tony Mathis will take over as the starter in the backfield with Justin Johnson in a backup role. Freshman CJ Donaldson has earned the right to be the No. 3 guy at the position. Brown said Donaldson’s versatility provides “real opportunities.”
“He’s a guy we got late. It’s a great recruiting story. We recruited him off of tape. He was committed to Tulane. Trey Lathan, who played linebacker was at the same high school was committed to us. We went down to see Trey and then saw CJ,” Brown said. ”While we were watching, I asked former assistant Travis Trickett ‘who’s this guy?’ I’m like we need to be on him. Trickett said he was committed to Tulane and plays receiver, but didn’t think he was a receiver. So we asked ‘what is he?’ We took him as an athlete. We had a departure at running back so we needed a number. He’s went into that position, has been a fast learner, and now we are getting him ready to play.”
Defensively, Brown described Jordan Lesley’s group as hungry and more athletic than in years past. Due to the athleticism, WVU can play more man coverage than it has had in three years. As expected, the defensive line will be the strength.
“We can rotate a number of guys. I think Dante Stills is really ready to step up and be the type of player we all know he can be,” Brown said.
Lance Dixon, East Mississippi CC transfer Lee Kpogba and Exree Loe will be the main contributors at linebacker, along with Jared Bartlett at bandit. There is still a need for a fourth linebacker to emerge over the next week.
At cornerback, Charles Woods, JMU transfer Wesley McCormick and Colorado State transfer Rashad Ajayi proved they can make quality plays.
“(safety)Aubrey Burks and (safety) Marcis Floyd have shown the ability through camp to be front-line starters in the Big 12. We will have a combo between Jasir Cox and Davis Mallinger at spear,” Brown said. “We need some backups at safety to get ready here in the next couple of days.”
“He’s been a really good addition for us,” Brown said of Grothaus. “We have a competition between Kolton McGhee and Oliver Straw at punter.”
James will handle the kick return duties while he, Smith and Fox will all see time at punt return.
Tune in this weekend to the debut episode of the Neal Brown Show to hear the full exclusive interview with the head coach.