By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This was what Dana Holgorsen had in mind when he decided to turn his spring practice into a traveling show, the third and final open practice before the spring game coming to the state capital and being welcomed by the citizens like a tax cut.
With a football feel in the air, cool and breezy like a mid-fall day, the sun playing hide-and-seek with the clouds that were blowing across the sky, more than 5,000 showed up for what was a spirited session of hard hitting, breaking into cheers of “Let’s Go, Mountaineers” that tried to drown out a public address announcer who at times sounded like he was doing the Super Bowl instead of simply a spring scrimmage.
If there was a detraction, it was that it took half the scrimmage before someone corrected him and told that the quarterback he was calling Paul Millard — as in President Millard Fillmore — pronounced his name Mil-LARD, but like a couple of the fumbles that soured offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson’s stomach, it didn’t ruin the overall day.
“Much like it was two weeks ago in Wheeling, our guys are excited about this,” Holgorsen said even before the first ball was snapped. “I think it is good for us to get out and show everybody how much work we’ve been doing. It’s far from the finished product, but to be able to get the fans and you guys to come out and identify who some guys are and how they’re progressing is great.
“And then, the flip side of it is us trying to get a charge out of it, as well. Our guys get excited about being able to wake up and get in a spring practice, and play in front of a bunch of people. It kind of gets them cranked up. It might affect someone better or it might affect someone negatively — that’s why I wanted to do this as well.”
Unlike at Wheeling, where there were restrictions to the interaction with the fans because it is a high school stadium, Laidley Field is a college stadium and so the players and fans had their moments, including some pre-game autographs and a 45-minute post-game autograph session, that seemed to please the adults as much as the kids who waited patiently in line.
And it wasn’t only the fans and the players – and punters and placekickers – who got a kick out of this excursion. Some of the coaches were juiced up, too, including defensive coordinator Tony Gibson from Vann.
“It was a great feeling,” he gushed at the end of the day. “I don’t know if we’re ever going to be able to bring the Mountaineers closer to Boone County than today. I saw some great people from the past, guys I’ve coached with and played with. My brother got to come over, and my high school coach got to come out. What a great turnout.”
And the play, while shaky at times considering this is anything but the finished product and it is only April 5, was satisfying to almost everyone, except for running back Dreamius Smith, who got his bell rung quite loudly by a Karl Joseph hit, leaving with a left shoulder injury that was not considered serious.
Joseph’s ability to hit and hit hard again stood out.
“No. 8, he’s a missile now,” Gibson said. “You know, he has no neck. He explodes from the toes all the way through the top of his head. He’s done it as a freshman, did it a bunch last year and today, as soon as I heard it, I knew he was in on it somewhere. He jumped up from the bottom of the pile.”
He had company doing good things on defense, Jeremy Tyler being everywhere, even if he did drop an interception.
“Tyler probably had the best spring practice he’s had. K.J. Dillon and Jarrod Harper have come along too,” Gibson said.
And on the offensive side, Dustin Garrison was back to being his pre-knee injury Dustin Garrison, scoring a couple of touchdowns from 8 and 9 yards out and showing the kind of running skills that had him rushing for 290 yards in a single game against Bowling Green as a freshman.
“I thought he had a really good scrimmage,” said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson. “He showed up. He definitely stuck out. He can play if plays like that. That was really good to see him come out and play like he did today.”
“He competed — stick your nose in there and go hard,” running backs coach JaJuan Seider said.
With Wendell Smallwood also coming on strong and Smith and Rushel Shell and Andrew Buie, WVU is loaded at the running back spot.
“You mix in four or five guys who can play, that’s the baseline for competition. The more competition you have, it makes everyone better. If we could make every position as crowded as that, we’ll be all right,” Dawson said.
And no, they don’t have too many of them.
“You saying depth is problem now?” Dawson said when one reporter asked. “Running backs get nicked up. I don’t know if anyone ever went through a season and said, man, we had too many running backs that year. It happens the other way a lot. During the course of a season those guys tend to get nicked up more than any other position, so you better have a lot of them.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter@bhertzel.