MORGANTOWN – West Virginia football coach Neal Brown made official what everyone knew at his Tuesday media session to preview this Saturday’s 4 p.m. game against Iowa State by saying that starting safety JoVanni Stewart was no longer with the team, but that blow has been considerably softened by the play of true freshman Tykee Smith, who replaced him in last week’s 42-31 loss to Texas.
Smith eased the pain so much that Brown’s injury report was probably tougher to swallow than Stewart’s departure, because it threw the receiving corps into disarray.
Wide receiver Sean Ryan, the tall transfer from Temple who was coming on strongly, underwent surgery on what was described as an upper body injury thought to be a shoulder, and will be out for a yet to be determined period of time.
“Sean Ryan had surgery this morning,” Brown said. “Upper body injury. No timetable on that, but I’ll update that when I can. Obviously he’ll be out for the next couple of games.”
Ryan was injured while making his best play as a Mountaineer in the fourth quarter, soaring high between defenders to make a catch good for 39 yards while a defender rolled over him.
“I hate it for Sean because he was really starting to play really well,” said Brown. “He’ll come back and I feel like he’ll be able to play at some point this season. I’m just not sure when. “
And to add more misery to that, budding star wideout Sam Jones, who leads the team in receiver and whose speed gives them a legitimate deep threat, is being listed as questionable after banging his head on the turf in the second half.
It’s thought that he is being treated for a potential concussion but now decision has yet been made on his availability.
“I’ll try to get an update on my radio show Thursday night,” Brown said.
James had 32 catches for 329 yards and two touchdowns in the first five games.
“When somebody goes down, we feel really bad for that. We hate for that,” Brown said. “But it does provide an opportunity. Now, the opportunity is what you make of it. I thought Bryce Wheaton did a great job making two big plays [against Texas] to set himself up to be a guy for us moving forward this year.”
Ali Jenning has had six catches for just 46 yards and a touchdown and Wheaton has three catches for 50 yards and a score. They will split time if James can’t play.
As for Stewart, he decided to sit out Saturday’s game with an eye on redshirting and probably going into the transfer portal. His playing time had begun to shrink as Smith began cutting into it. that’s not a comment on the way Stewart has been playing but more because WVU is in a rebuilding year and wanted to get Smith experience.
“As far as JoVanni goes, he has made the decision to not be an active participant and, as a result, he is no longer a member of the team this fall,” Brown said.
When asked whether he felt that meant next year, too, Brown backed off on his answer, saying “I’m only interested in the here and now.”
Well, it’s now and Tykee Smith is here and he’s been impressive.
“Tykee put himself in a position to play more,” Brown said. “He’s a guy who, since he came on campus back in late May, has had an infectious attitude, loves football. There’s no question about his passion for the game.
“He loves practice, he loves the meetings, he loves the weight room, he enjoys the grind of it. You don’t get that all that time.”
They have kept a close eye on the true freshman out of Imhoter Charter School in Philadelphia.
“Two things happen with true freshmen,” Brown said. “They get into the season and start inclining because they start feeling more comfortable and play at a higher level or the wear and tear starts wearing on them and you see a decline.
“He’s one of those guys that gets better. I thought he played huge.”
Both Brown and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning were raving about one play in particular.
“The play that sticks out more than anything is the play he made on [Devin] Duvernay. He’s one-on-one with one of the leading receivers in the country and he covers him and has a pass break up down by the band,” Brown said.
“That really stood out to me, showed what kind of competitor he was, how he stepped up at a big moment, the game I think was 21-17 at the time.”
Koenning also raved about what Smith did there.
“Tykee made a great play. The ball was thrown perfect and Tykee was just a little bit better than their guy on that play,” he said.
Now, Koenning knows he has to keep Smith grounded as he goes through the ups and downs of being a freshman starter.
“That kid did a great job,” Koenning said. “Everybody handles things differently and we have to make sure we handle success the same way we handle the failure. He has to get over thinking he’s ready for the NFL yet.
“We all handle the scenarios the best we can,” he said. “I’m trying not to lose my mind with the disappointment with how we finished the other day and Tykee has to keep pressing to get better.
“He’s the type of kid who wants to be great so hopefully he’ll keep learning.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel