By Tim Goodenow for MSNsportsNET.com
December 30, 2009
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – No matter how much time they have to practice, competitive coaches in any sport almost always say they’d like to have more time with their athletes.
The West Virginia University football staff is no different.
Freshman Branko Busick is one of many young players benefiting from extra practice this week in Jacksonville, Fla. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Preparing to defeat a storied-program in Florida State on Jan. 1 in the Konica Minolta Gator Bowl remains the number one priority, but developing players for next season might be a close second.
Bowl-eligible teams are given, or rewarded some coaches would say, with additional practices prior to its season-ending game. But just how much of a difference can a dozen or so days of extra practice make?
“It’s colossal,” said Coach Bill Stewart. “What we’ve done everyday, here and back in Morgantown, are fundamental drills. Being able to participate and gain extra repetitions in these drills is like having an extra spring practice.”
WVU’s roster is loaded with young talent at multiple positions and on both sides of the ball. For offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen, the extra bowl work serves as an added benefit for any player.
“Everything is about not making mistakes,” said Mullen. “And clearly, you give yourself a better chance of not making mistakes if you get to run a play 25 times versus 10 times.
“There is muscle memory of showing them different defenses that maybe they weren’t able to get enough reps on. And it’s not just one play, it’s one play on six different fronts. When you have extra time to run those different plays against different looks, you better your chance for success.”
Five true freshmen have seen action this season for the Mountaineers – Shawne Alston (RB), Tavon Austin (RB), Terence Garvin (DB), Pat Miller (DB) and Geno Smith (QB). That leaves plenty of competition with no guarantees at any position for 2010.
The competition from the non-starters is looked at on a daily basis, however.
“They are being coached and evaluated everyday,” said Stewart of his young talent. “We don’t just talk to Jarrett Brown. Geno Smith is being coached. Guys like Brodrick Jenkins are being coached. We have a group of young linemen that are being coached. We are still watching film as a staff and we constantly talk about the progress of our young guys.”
Players like linebacker Branko Busick, who is redshirting the 2009 season, understand their role in helping WVU prepare for a bowl game. They also know a strong effort at bowl practices can serve as a springboard for the spring season.
“The extra reps do help some,” said Busick. “There were obviously more (reps) back in Morgantown. We are focused on beating Florida State right now and the two-deep sees most of the action. I’m taking everything in and trying to use every practice as a learning experience to get ready for spring.”
Getting to experience the madness and structure of bowl week can be fun for third string and scout team players.
“The bowl game is also a reward,” noted Mullen. “For them to see they are on a football team that can reward them, may make them work a little harder.”
“They have to adhere to the standards we set which are very strict,” said Stewart of his players not on the ‘travel roster.’ “We can’t play everyone and for some of those guys it can be tough. It’s not easy for the younger players on the team to deal with the distractions on the road that they experience for the first time.
“But our young men know this is a business trip. I hope and pray we can continue to keep our focus and make this a business trip. You act like a Mountaineer and stay first class in everything you do.”
By no means are players like linebacker Reed Williams and running back Noel Devine treating this week like a vacation, taking in the sun from the sidelines.
The majority of practice reps this week have been taken by the usual suspects. And they’ve made it clear – the Mountaineers are here to win.
“Our focus has been on Florida State since our invitation to the Gator Bowl,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. “They understand this is game week and the reps aren’t much different than during the regular season. Those kids understood what we were going to do, and that is to try and win this bowl game.”
While the West Virginia football team concentrates on finishing out the 2009 season, the coaching staff is taking full advantage of additional time in preparing underclassmen for 2010.