Brown: WVU football 'continues to climb'

Chapin Jewell
Mineral Daily News-Tribune
WVU head coach Neal Brown walks off the field after a victory in his first game at WVU against James Madison in 2019.

MORGANTOWN - AT&T Stadium in Arlington is best known for being the home of the Dallas Cowboys. While the Cowboys were nowhere to be seen on Wednesday and Thursday, the stadium was abuzz with talk of football, college football, Big 12 college football to be exact.

It was Big 12 Media Days, and the West Virginia Mountaineers were represented by Coach Neal Brown, defensive lineman Dante Stills, and running back Leddie Brown.

Stills and Brown are sure to be the face of the Mountaineers this season on their respective sides of the ball, each with a respectable resume thus far but with even higher hopes for an even more fruitful future. During WVU’s 11:15-11:45 press conference on Wednesday, Coach Brown spoke highly of both.

“Players that are joining us here today, we have defensive lineman Dante Stills, a senior, representing Fairmont Senior High School in West Virginia, one of our own. Think he's got a chance to really have a breakout senior season. His brother, Darius, played for us,” Brown stated.

“And then running back Leddie Brown, First Team All-Conference player a year ago, went over 1,000 yards in just ten games. And both those guys -- Leddie is from Delaware, played his senior year in high school at Neumann Goretti there. Both those guys are tremendous representatives of our football program, and proud they are here to join us today,” Brown explained.

After introducing Stills and Brown, Brown touted the excellent work of both Big 12 Commissioner Bowlsby and Ed Stewart, and his own athletic director Shane Lyons, who leads the Division I Council, in navigating the changes and challenges of the past year. Brown was specifically thankful for their work in allowing the Big 12 to play college football last year.

Then it was time for Brown to address the state of Mountaineer football.

“As a program, we continue to climb. We're making progress. And if you think about it off the field, we just finished up $ 55 million worth of program enhancements. That's really had a positive effect, and we've got a lot of momentum in recruiting right now.

The program enhancements Brown references are facility upgrades completed over the past year that have blown recruits away now that they can physically make visits to Morgantown. The facilities now put WVU on even footing with many of the nation’s elite programs.

“Continuing off the field, academically, our guys had a 3.11 GPA in the spring semester. We graduated a hundred percent of our guys, going back over the last 19 months, we are really proud of them in that area,” Brown explained.

According to Brown, “Then culturally, I think our buy-in is extremely high right now and we made tremendous progress over the last two years with the culture within our football program.”

The mantra has been “Trust the Climb.” Brown enters his third season at WVU with a .500 record of 11-11. In his inaugural 2019 season, Brown’s Mountaineers finished with a losing record of 5-7. In his second season in 2020, WVU finished 6-4 and capped off the winning season with a 24-21 Liberty Bowl victory over then 9-2 Army.

To continue climbing, West Virginia must take full advantage of that extremely high buy in to produce the highest quality product possible on the field. To that end, for Brown, this team passes the eye test.

“Then on the field, I really like our team. I'll say that at the front. I think our leadership is better than at any point since I was named head coach in January of 2019.”

It all starts with the defense.

“Starting on defense, I thought we had one of the best defensive units in the Big 12 Conference last year and nationally, and our statistics back that up. Really, that's going to be the unit with the most experience. That's going to be the unit that will lead us again,” Brown stated.

According to Brown, “I think it starts up front on our defensive line. Talked about Dante (Stills) who was one of our most improved players in the spring, and also Akheem Mesidor, who was Freshman All-American last year, I think we moved him inside. I think he's got really an opportunity to be a special player in our league.”

Brown continued with, “At linebacker, Josh Chandler is going to step into the role that Tony Fields did just a great job in last year at the Mike linebacker position. We have some moving pieces at that position. I think fall camp is going to determine how we go into the season feeling about that, the linebacker position.”

Wrapping up the defensive talk, “The secondary, we return both starting safeties, Sean Mahone, Alonzo Addae, that have played a lot of football in this league and at an elite level. Nicktroy Fortune returns at corner. So a lot of returning players in the secondary. And we had -- I think we ended the season as the No. 1 pass defense in the country last year.”

Brown opened up talk about the offensive side of the ball by explaining that the Mountaineers made some progress in 2020 compared to 2019. In 2019, WVU was near the bottom of the pack in the Big 12. In 2020, the Mountaineers moved more to the middle of the pack. Brown points to having experience for the first time on the offensive side of the ball as the hopeful difference maker in 2021.

“Starts at quarterback. Jarret Doege returns. Thought he played really well during the middle part of the season last year. He probably had the best spring of anybody on the offensive side of the ball,” Brown stated. “Running back, Leddie Brown, we talked about him. I think he's special. His video showed that last year. We have to develop some depth at his position.”

According to Brown, “And then receiver is going to be -- we've got guys that have played football now for two years and we have talent in that room. They have had a good spring, and they have to make the next step. I think how they play is going to determine the success of our offense.”

“Up front, we have five guys that have played a lot of college football, and we have a couple young guys that I think will be factored into that position. And at tight end we returned Mike O'Laughlin. Again, I think he's played a lot of football, and he's ready to take and be one of the top tight ends in our league,” Brown explained.

There’s defense, office, and then the third and final component, special teams.

“And then special teams, a lot of importance there. I think we have to be better in the return game. That's something we've really challenged our players. And we have to be more consistent kicking and punting. We've had more athleticism than we've had at any point in the last two years. So I think our coverage units will continue to be productive, and that's the plan,” Brown explained.

Brown concluded his remarks, prior to taking questions, by addressing the schedule. WVU will be challenged in that department as they play 11 Power Five teams, and are one of only four universities that do so. Then there are two huge regional matchups with Maryland and Virginia Tech, with Maryland being the opener. Two weeks later comes the Hokies. So much excitement for the fan base.

In total. Brown fielded ten questions, running the gamut from are people sleeping on West Virginia this year, how is your staff taking time for themselves, what is your approach to the COVID vaccination, when did you obtain buy in, etc.

All in all, Brown’s remarks about the positive state of the program and outlook for 2021 capped off what has been a productive last month or so for the Mountaineer program. Several commitments from the class of 2022 show great promise to include two four-star recruits in Nicco Marciol and Jacolby Spells.

It’s clear Neal Brown looks to the 2021 season and beyond with great promise.