Neal Brown focuses on fundamentals as West Virginia defense, special teams makes improvements during spring ball

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As another April day winds down, the West Virginia Mountaineers are gearing up for their spring game, scheduled for Saturday, April 27. As they eye the end of spring ball as well as their season-opening showdown with Penn State on August 31st, Coach Neal Brown is thrilled with the team's progress.

Brown believes they've got what it takes to shake up the Big 12 and maybe even make a surprise run for the College Football Playoffs. But amidst all the excitement, he knows the importance of sticking to the basics. Even when fatigue kicks in mid-game, those fundamentals can make all the difference.

"What we do is right up until our first scrimmage, we had a scrimmage on Friday," Brown said on Wednesday following practice. "We went in the stadium, we tackled for most of it and that was practice nine. So right at practice nine, like one through eight is basically there's a lot of drills, fundamentals group, and then starting in practice nine, it was all team. And then practice 10 was a little bit like you saw today. After you guys left, we did all 11 on 11 football after that, and we'll do that."

Two critical areas of play Brown has seen that focus on fundamentals pay off is tackling and special teams -- two facets of football which go hand-in-hand. While Mountaineer fans witnessed significant progress last year, there's always room to elevate their game even further.

"We do a kick scrimmage, where I know we hit two live and then we probably get at the start of practice two or three more leading into the first game," Brown said. "It's hard and what we've tried to do to get better at kickoff is a lot of our tackling drills that we do now as part of our special team circuit are kickoff tackles. We missed a ton of tackles, just overrunning the ball, from the back side."

"So now what we're doing is we're really working a wrap tackle, where we're sprinting and we're practicing it on the track landing pad so it's not putting a bunch of force on your shoulders. But just that was point of emphasis in offseason. Trying to figure out how can we practice these tackles that were missing on kickoff without having 22 bodies out there?"

He's also seen both familiar names and new players step into big-time roles on both the defensive side of the ball.

"I think from, you know, special team standpoint, I'm going to talk about some guys I think that are showing up," Brown said. "We've really prioritized a couple guys on offense would be Jaylen Anderson, he's a guy that he's never played special teams here, and it's really been a want to deal. And so really stressing him in January he needed to be a complete football player and be able to help the team. And he's come and he's he's done really well."

"TJ Johnson was red-shirted last year, and now TJ is coming out, and he is starting to we do a lot of these competitions. During spring it's kind of controlled competitions for special teams and TJ's been a real pleasant surprise in that and really starting to do that. Colin McBee is another guy."

With key leaders and contributors departing from a defense which already did not live up to expectations last year, much on that side of the ball has been shrouded in mystery. However, as each day passes, it becomes evident that players are stepping up and effectively filling the void left behind.

"Ever since Friday [Reid Carrico] has really put several nice days together, defensively and special teams, he's going to be a factor on both," Brown said. "Zae Jennings, who's an early enrollee, a really good football player. It's happening really fast for him on defense, but you can see his talent and his ability on special teams. He's a guy that's playing himself into that."

"Derek Berlitz is a guy that I think's going to help us in our punch shield in the backline will kickoff return. So he's been in our program now going on his third year, and he's showing signs of being one of those guys. I think Jordan Jackson defensively and on special teams has shown some growth especially here since Friday. But those are some guys, other guys are sticking out like Caden Biser and a couple other guys that have done well on special teams but those are some kids that are really kind of showing up.