MORGANTOWN — Normally when you speak of the seasons changing you think of summer, spring, winter and fall, of the leaves changing colors, of the days getting longer or shorter, of cold turning warm.
But around these parts, winter is followed by something more than spring.
It is followed with spring football, and starting on Tuesday it is upon us again. This time not only is born a new season, but also a new era of West Virginia University football with Neal Brown taking over from Dana Holgorsen and with a new staff coming with him.
Gone, too, is quarterback Will Grier and his two favorite receivers, David Sills V and Gary Jennings, as well as superstar linebacker David Long Jr., making this the most intriguing spring since Rich Rodriguez walked out the door and turned the team over to Bill Stewart.
Players need to learn new coaches, and new coaches need to learn new players while teaching them a new system.
For Brown, the learning curb is steep and there is much to be done, for this is hardly a team settled in its ways right now. So here is a six-pack to go with your pre-spring game gate that is filled with the six top decisions that must be made.
1. Who will be WVU’s next gridiron general?
In today’s word of football, especially the Big 12, a team is as good as its quarterback.
Brown has three to choose from — Oklahoma transfer Austin Kendall, last year’s lead back up to Grier and Miami transfer Jack Allison, and last year’s redshirt Trey Lowe III, an athletic, different style QB than the others.
Kendall is the unknown and probably the most intriguing transfer anywhere save for Alabama’s Jalen Hurts’ transfer to Ohio State.
How does Brown go about making his decision?
“We’ll have it split up of who will be the lead guy each day,” the coach began. “But the way we practice, they are all going to get enough reps.
“Here’s my basic line, here’s my deal on quarterback competitions: When it is clear, it is clear.”
In other words, I’ll tell you when I know who it is.
“I’ve been involved in a bunch of these throughout time as a play-caller, and when it’s clear, it’s clear. There’s a time when you name that guy. But the best answer I can give you is, when it’s clear, it’s clear.”
2. Who plays center?
This is almost like the Abbott and Costello routine of “Who’s on First?”
There’s going to be an answer, but it always comes back to who since Matt Jones, the starting center, transferred to Youngstown State in January.
“The decision I am making has nothing to do with the recent staff change within the football program at WVU, and in turn, cannot be remedied or altered by said staff,” Jones wrote in announcing his decision.
He was going home to be with his family and fiance.
“This decision stems from many factors, the culmination of which makes it impossible for me to remain at WVU,” he said.
This is almost as important as the quarterback decision. Way back when the Cincinnati Bengals were formed, the cagey Paul Brown noted that when he builds a team he starts with the center. He proved it by making his first player at Cincinnati center Bob Johnson out of Tennessee.
The logical person to fill in was Jacob Buccigrossi, who backed up Jones last season, but he’s out due to surgery.
It appears redshirt junior Chase Behrndt and redshirt freshman Briason Mays will get the first looks, but Brown will almost certainly do a lot of experimenting through the spring to get at least two deep at the position, maybe three by the time they get down to serious work in the fall.
“That’s as important of a spot as we have on either side of the ball,” Brown said. “We put a lot on our center. They need to be a leader type of kid. They need to be able to ID some fronts, get us in some calls. That’s something that’s really important for us this spring. Those two guys are going to be the first two who get a crack at it. In my opinion, one of those two guys can get it done.”
If Lowe were to come on big time as the quarterback, it might give a boost to Mays, who was his center in high school.
3. How do you replace David Long Jr.?
In fact, they may not have to.
It isn’t that they have the next David Long, it’s more that they have the first “spear” to play at WVU and, if they fill this hybrid safety/linebacker/defensive end right. It may be where JoVanni Stewart, the undersized linebacker who was so impressive last year after Dylan Tonkery went down, fits in.
Stewart seems able to fit the requirements of the position, something that is important to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
“Back at Troy we have a donkey — a legitimate donkey,” he said during an interview session. “I wouldn’t expect that donkey to go run the Kentucky Derby. You don’t ask guys to do things they can’t do. But the things they can do well, you put them in the position to do those things well.”
Considering this guy will rush the passer, drop in coverage and play a linebacker spot, it seems to fit Stewart’s attributes .... so that will get a good hard look this spring.
4. Receiving assignments?
People will tell you you only get a Sills and Jennings combination once in a lifetime, but WVU has, over the years, come up with that a number of times, enough so they can try to create it again.
Don Nehlen had Shawn Foreman and David Saunders in the late 1980s, Bill Stewart and Dana Holgorsen had Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin in 2010-12 and Holgorsen had Kevin White and Mario Alford in 2016.
So who will it be this year?
Well, they start with Marcus Simms and his dazzling speed and ability to stretch the field. This sets up to be his year if they can decide upon a quarterback quickly and give him time to work out the kinks with them.
Then Brown is looking to a couple of players who showed last year they can handle the assignments.
“We have a couple guys established,” Brown said. “I think it’s big. I think T.J Simmons and Tevin Bush, it’s time for both of those guys to increase their roles. And we have some young guys, some redshirt freshmen and sophomores, that have been in the shadows.
“Now, in the spring, it’s their time to get out there with the 1s and show that they can be productive at this level. Guys like Sam James, Kwincy Hall, Bryce Wheaton, Randy Fields (Jr.), those type of guys, this spring is going to be really critical for them.”
5. Who is the S-back?
Or should it be what is the S-back?
Brown says it stands for “sniffer”, another combo position that sometimes in is in a two-point stance behind an offensive tackle or tight end and blocks or will move into the slot and play receiver or block downfield.
It’s a rare individual, but they have a few who could fit the bill, beginning with Jovani Haskins, who split time with Trevon Wesco at tight end/fullback last season and showed ability.
But they are looking deeper than that and might even wind up turning to one of the more interesting Mountaineers, 29-year-old Jesse Beal, who may not be trying out for the NFL at his age but who does stand 6-foot-6 and impresses at 252 pounds.
Logan Timmons is another who will be given a hard look.
6. Defensive decisions?
This is kind of a nice problem. WVU loses pretty good defensive linemen in Ezekiel Rose, Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow, all transfers who started games.
But Koenning is blessed with a lot of returning talent beginning with the Stills brothers — Dante and Darius — out of Fairmont Senior who made a strong impression last season. Both look like budding stars to return with Reese Donahue.
But as much as you chase quarterbacks in the Big 12, you need depth on the D-line, and WVU seems to have quality there.
The defense is also changing from Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 stack, as Koenning will employ both three-man and four-man fronts, which means different assignments for all those returning D-linemen.
Jeffery Pooler got a lot of experience last year, and Stone Wolfley and Brenon Thrift also will push for playing time.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter at @bhertzel.