MORGANTOWN – Here’s a list to ponder when it comes to passing judgment on West Virginia football: Matt Jones, Josh Sills, Dreshaun Miller, Tevin Bush, Martell Pettaway, JoVanni Stewart, Kenny Robinson Jr., Keith Washington, Hakeem Bailey, Austin Kendall and Sean Ryan.
These are all players who, at the end of last season, were expected to start or play key roles on this year’s West Virginia football team.
Now, here’s another list to ponder, this one including players who played a key role in Saturday night’s 41-18 loss to Iowa State, including their class and total number of starts going into the game. Jack Allison, redshirt junior, 1 start; Briason Mays, redshirt freshman, 3 starts; Nickroy Fortune, freshman. 0 starts; Kerry Martin Jr., freshman, 0 starts; Winston Wright Jr., freshman, 0 starts; Ali Jennings, freshman, 0 starts; Tae Mayo, freshman, 0 starts; Tykee Smith, freshman, 1 start; James Gmiter, redshirt freshman, 3 starts; Mike O’Laughlin, redshirt freshman, 0 start; and Jordan Jefferson, freshman, 1 start.
Think about that for a minute. Filling in for players who were expected to be big producers this year were a group of players who included 8 true freshmen, three redshirt freshmen and a redshirt junior who combined had started 9 collegiate games.
Offense, defense, doesn’t matter. There’s pieces missing and WVU is replacing them with young, inexperienced players.
Not exactly the formula to compete in the Big 12, especially when you are playing Texas, Iowa State, this week at Oklahoma and Baylor in succession.
It’s a coaching challenge, if not a coaching nightmare.
Coaches will tell you you can’t coach experience and you learn best from doing things wrong so you can correct them.
It’s called growing pains and they hurt not only the player but the coaches and the fans.
The WVU defense gave up 41 points to Iowa State, 42 to Texas the week before, yet they really didn’t play badly.
“Take the first and third quarter against Texas, the first half of this game. We’re capable, plenty capable but we’re either here or we’re here,” defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said, holding one hand up high and one hand down low.
“There’s no in between. We have to figure this drop off. It’s been there all year. We have to get some depth.”
The problem is that the depth has been forced into key roles, which means when they make their mistakes they come at crucial times. Then to make matters worse, the older players the young ones should be learning from aren’t around, because they left the team or are injured.
Players like Tykee Smith, a freshman safety, who scored a touchdown on an interception against Iowa State or cornerback Tae Mayo, who gave one up.
“I thought he was competitive without watching the film,” Koenning said of Mayo, making his collegiate debut. “It didn’t seem like he was out of place.”
The truth is, the young players on defense such as Jefferson or Smith or Kerry Martin have acquitted themselves well.
“He has huge upside,” Koenning said. “Obviously, he didn’t play much defense. He played quarterback in high school. He has to learn how to tackle. He scares me. He has a tendency to stop his feet and his head goes down.
“We’re trying to coach him as hard as we can. I don’t think he’s scared. He’s trying his butt off. There’s not a better person on our football team. There’s not another person who wants it more than him. I love the young man to death.”
It’s no different on offense, where the o- line just hasn’t jelled.
“We’re not really built, personnel-wise, to knock people off the ball, which is what you need to do in this league. We’re trying to coach around that and figure out what we can do well,” offensive coordinator Mike Moore said.
“We can run the outside zone well. We had a couple of things for these guys that worked and we got some good yardage. But personnel-wise we just have to continue to recruit until we get people who can knock people off the ball.”
It’s a process and it is going to take some time and a lot of patience, but the West Virginia coaching staff seems to be well suited to the task.
Let’s see if the fans are.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel