MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – While West Virginia did get experience from the transfer portal in the offseason, the team’s younger players have proven to be just as valuable.
Through nine games, 15 true freshmen and 19 redshirt freshmen have played for the Mountaineers. While most of those players are seeing the field via special teams, there’s a crop of newcomers that are leaving their mark in the other two phases.
The offensive skill positions are where the young players are leaving the biggest impact on that side. Redshirt freshman receiver Hudson Clement worked his way into the starting lineup while freshman running back Jahiem White and freshman receivers Rodney Gallagher and Traylon have also proved reliable.
“We have to do some things after the season to retain them,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said. That’s just the world we live in. When you look at it, Hudson is a redshirt freshman and he’s not just a feel-good story, he’s a real player. Jahiem White, I’m zero surprised he’s burst onto the scene and is really talented.”
“Traylon Ray played really well on Saturday and he didn’t even have spring ball, he got here halfway through the summer,” he added. “He’s going to be a special player here. Rodney is really good with the ball in his hands. After an offseason, he gets stronger and really learns how to run routes he’s just going to get better. We feel really good about the young offensive linemen we have in our program, too.”
Clement, who missed the past two games with an injury, is WVU’s third-leading receiver with 298 yards and a team-high four receiving touchdowns. Ray has caught 10 passes for 108 yards and a score while White is the third-leading rusher with 50 carriers for 416 yards and two scores. He eclipsed the century mark twice this season, including a career-high 146 against BYU.
Gallagher has more of a hybrid role with 81 rushing yards and 43 receiving.
“What we are doing right now is put him in the best position to be successful. Now, he played, if you go back and look at the snaps, he played more of a true receiver in this game. There’s just a number of things that have to go right for a receiver to get the ball,” Brown said. “When you hand it to them, you can definitely determine they are going to get it.”
Brown added as Gallagher continues to improve, they are going to find creative ways to get him touches.
“He’s a guy we are going to run option routes with and things like that once he gets a better feel for the top of the routes. As his career progresses, we are going to get him the ball handing it to him,” Brown said. “He can play some wildcat and some things like that once he gets a little thicker because he played all that in high school. That’s what his background is.”
When it comes to another true freshman ball carrier, Brown said he and DJ Oliver will have conversations this week and come to a decision on whether or not Oliver will redshirt as he appeared in four games.
Defensively, Ben Cutter has been thrust into a starting role after Trey Lathan’s season-ending injury at TCU. Lathan, who is a redshirt freshman, was one of WVU’s top defenders before his season was cut short. He had 27 tackles and a TFL through five games. Cutter has now taken over that role and held his own. He is No. 4 in total tackles with 35 and 5 TFLs including a sack.
Redshirt freshman defensive lineman Tomiwa Durojaiye is also making the most of his opportunity. He has 15 total tackles and leads the team in sacks with three. As Brown pointed out earlier this week, if linebacker Josiah Trotter wasn’t out with a season-ending injury, he’d be on the list of true freshmen making an immediate impact.
“If Josiah Trotter was healthy, he would be playing as a true freshman. “Here’s the thing, I think sometimes we forget guys if they aren’t playing immediately. Everybody’s path is different. Some of these guys who are redshirting are going to be really, really good players here,” Brown said.
“James Heard is redshirting because he needs the physical maturity, but he is going to be a great player,” he added. “It’s a matter of when not if. I could talk the same about Johnny Williams or Nick Krahe, people like that. We feel really good about our freshman class.”
While it isn’t uncommon for younger players to see the field early on in their career, the ones WVU is relying on are filling crucial roles. Brown said he isn’t surprised the younger players are seeing success. It’s about getting your best players on the field, and it just so happens for the Mountaineers a handful of players in that category are getting their first real taste of college action this season.
“If you have a choice, between talent and experience, you are going to take talent. You are going to take some lumps. There are going to be some lessons, sometimes hard lessons those young players have to learn, but you want to play talent,” Brown said. “Some of them were here in the spring, some in fall camp. It was clear they were talented. Let’s put them in a position where they can have success, where their confidence can really go and then when we need to lean on them, let’s lean on them.”