West Virginia football undoubtedly made solid improvements on both sides of the ball during Neal Brown’s second season — and the head coach wants to keep that trend going.
While the defense was ranked at or near the top of the nation throughout 2020, offensive production went up 90 yards per game from Brown’s first season. A renaissance in the run game was the driving force as running back Leddie Brown led an attack that was nearly twice as prolific as it was in 2019, a marked development right out of the gate this past season.
Heading into 2021, however, there are still several aspects of the Mountaineer offense that Coach Brown wants to improve — both on the ground and in the air.
“Offensively, we return a lot of production. We need to take a step on this side,” he said. “I feel like defensively last year in ’19 we were about average and we went to pretty good. Offensively, we went from poor in ’19 to about average, and now we need to take that next step.”
Keeping the run game trending up
Much focus will again be spent on the run game this spring. Leddie Brown was one of the top rushers in the Big 12 in 2020 with 1,010 yards and nine touchdowns on the season, but there’s a steep drop-off in production after his name. Alec Sinkfield chipped in 327 yards as the number two back, but he has moved on from WVU as a grad transfer.
In fact, all other rushers (besides quarterbacks) combined for just 442 yards in 2020. For this reason, the coaching staff is approaching Leddie with caution this spring, more utilizing him to improve schemes, while trying to improve his pass-catching skills.
“We’ve gotta create depth there and get more production with guys other than Leddie Brown,” the coach said.
The focal point, then, will be on improving depth. Coach Brown says redshirt sophomore Tony Mathis and sophomore Avarius Sparrow will get a lot of opportunities this spring in live situations, with newcomers Jaylen Anderson and Justin Johnson stepping in over the summer as well.
Fix the little things, get big things through the air
There are three main areas of emphasis in the pass game this spring: improving catch percentage, getting explosive plays, and winning various one-on-one battles.
Mountaineer fans lamented the team’s dropped passes throughout the season, as those simple mistakes compounded and even ended up costing games. It was an issue that baffled Brown, as they performed in practice, but not in games — so he’s looking to change that this year.
“It’s not a lack of ability or anything, we’ve got to improve our fundamentals in that regard,” he said.
Catching the ball is just one piece of the puzzle, as Brown hopes to get more explosive plays on the field this coming season. Despite ranking in the top half nationally in total offense at 50th, their OFEI, or WVU’s per-possession scoring advantage, slotted in at 80th.
Brown stressed that this issue is a team one, and it will take everyone to make strides in this area.
“I think that’s a little bit of everybody offensively. We’ve got to protect better, we’ve got to make more plays on contested catches, the quarterback’s gotta do a better job of getting it into the proper spots, but that’s a point of emphasis.”
This is especially important in the Big 12, in which high-powered offenses typically dominate — and to make it even easier, Brown hopes to get his players in better positions to win one-on-one battles.
“Outside of Leddie, we didn’t win enough in those one-on-one situations,” Brown said. “Whether it’s breaking tackles, making people miss, and that’s where a lot of your explosive plays come from, and I think that’s one of the reasons why our explosives weren’t as high as they need to be.”