MORGANTOWN — It probably isn’t as critical as the week before the opening game, but for a football team working under a new coach as West Virginia is with Neal Brown, the first week of fall camp may be the most critical of the year.
This is where recruits are brought into the system, where coaches and players get to know and understand one another, where fundamentals are taught, the system — both offensively and defensively — installed and where judgments begin to be formed.
But oddly, as important as this week is, it may not be as important as the summer time when the players run their own practices, except for a limited time with the coaches.
It’s a time when they develop the chemistry that will carry through the year, a time when the veterans begin to assert themselves as leaders, and a time when the lessons you learn are not necessarily the X and O type but, instead, the ones that bond the team together.
For the players, summer is anything but a vacation.
“Summer is a grind,” said senior defensive tackle Reese Donahue. “It’s tough. We basically have been doing two-a-days all summer. We lift in the morning and then come back in the evening and do player-led practices or we’d do practice with coaches when the NCAA would allow us to.
“I think those player-led practices were a very important element, because not only did they teach us the schemes and the hand placements, but it taught us how to be leaders ... and followers.”
Think about that for a moment. Leading is hard. Following might be harder.
You come out of high school where you were a big shot. You get to summer drills and you are, well, a plebe, a private, a recruit.
Leadership from within on the team is vital; not in the good times, however, but in bad or crucial moments. No one has to step up as a leader when you are winning 28-0, but down 28-24 with two minutes to go and you’re only as good as your leaders.
And that starts in the summer without the coaches.
The coaches don’t just turn the players loose. They try to set up a hierarchy for the summer during spring practice.
“The coaches let the players ID who they thought their leaders were in their position groups,” Brown said. “Once they were ID’ed, we went through a process of training those guys.
“We let them know what we thought was the best way to lead that particular position group. Then they led certain aspects of our offseason program.”
“We have a leadership council here,” Donahue revealed. “There’s different ways of leading, and my way of leading often times is different from someone else.”
The goal is the same but there’s a lot of ways to get from Morgantown to New Orleans, where this year’s NCAA championship game is being held.
“What’s in my tool belt isn’t in everyone else’s,” Donahue said. “What’s in my tool belt is to lead by example. I may not be the most vocal person, I may not be the most outgoing, but you’ll never catch me loafing, you’ll never catch me not giving 100%.
“I’ll always be watching more film than the next person. I’m always going to be the first in and the last to leave.”
Other leaders are vocal. They demand you do as they say, while others push you to do as they do.
And in the summer you need to be pushed, especially if you are working out without the coaches.
What did the players get out of such workouts before camp opening?
“From a defensive standpoint, it’s communication, especially in the secondary. From an offensive standpoint it’s timing,” Coach Brown said
“But there’s a reverse of that, too. They are not getting watched, they are not getting coached, so they get some bad habits. The repetitions are important, but early in fall camp they are getting coached so they can break the bad habits they formed over the summer.”
There’s a list of bad habits that develop when you aren’t being pushed.
“Maybe it’s jogging on and off the field. Maybe it’s a lazy stance, maybe it’s not running to the ball because there is no one there to constantly remind them,” Brown said.
Now, they are in camp and it is work, work, work, although in the Brown regime there is always time for some team building, some kind of competition every day, be it a game of musical chairs — honest — or a spelling bee.
Like Donahue said, everyone has different tools in their leadership tool belt.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.