Orange Bowl: WVU back at practice, looking for a safety
MIAMI SHORES, Fla. -- West Virginia hit the field at Barry University Friday and practiced for the first time since breaking for the holidays late last week. The 23rd-ranked Mountaineers will work out the next four days before taking on No. 14 Clemson in the Orange Bowl Jan. 4 at Sun Life Stadium.
WVU (9-3) last played Dec. 1 at South Florida, but Coach Dana Holgorsen said his team has used the time wisely and still has more to use.
"We haven't taken a month off," hw said. "We just took a few days off. We took a few days off after the South Florida game, practiced that weekend, took a few days off, practiced that weekend, took some more days off and practiced a week. I don't anticipate this being any different than it was a week-and-a-half ago."
Friday's practice was just like any other the media has been allowed to see this season and featured a series of field goal, punting and kickoff drills at the beginning, but only after the offense went against the defense on some passing and running plays. There were no visible hiccups and the Mountaineers said the time off only helps.
"The timing is there," quarterback Geno Smith said. "The extra month was good to take the tension off our bodies. Every game down the stretch was hard for us. This gave us a chance to relax a little bit and that's going to help us out, I think.
"We're not too relaxed. We're excited to play the game. We understand the magnitude of it, not just for us, but for the state and the program. We want to win the game."
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Lost in the time off is the late-season emergence of receiver J.D. Woods. A starter against USF, Holgorsen said Woods is still ahead of Ivan McCartney on the depth chart.
Woods, a junior from Naples, Fla., played in only seven games and had just six catches for 52 yards, but four receptions and 38 yards came against the Bulls.
"He only played in one game really, but in that one game he made some pretty good catches," Holgorsen said. "I guess we've got to play in Florida for him to do some good things. The good news is we're playing in Florida again. He'll probably have a huge game."
McCartney, the sophomore from nearby Miramar High, has six catches for 36 yards in the past three games. He caught 47 balls for 572 yards and three scores during the regular season.
"Still in a developmental stage," Holgorsen said. "He's still a young guy and he didn't play very much last season. Toward the end of this season, he didn't do as much as we wanted him to do."
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It seems either redshirt freshman Wes Tonkery or true freshman Shaq Petteway will start at spur safety. Starter Terence Garvin will miss the game -- plus spring practice -- after knee surgery to repair cartilage damage.
"We'll find out how it goes this week," Holgorsen said. "We're not ready to name a starter at this point."
WVU could move senior Eain Smith from free safety to spur, as the team did when Garvin missed the Cincinnati game with an upper extremity injury, but Tonkery said he and Petteway have been getting all the reps in practice at spur.
Tonkery, who is from Shinnston and played at Bridgeport High, has played spur most of his time at WVU and is behind Garvin on the depth chart. Petteway, from Ohio powerhouse Steubenville High, was a bandit safety until the team learned Garvin would miss the bowl. Petteway then started to learn a new position.
The spur position is a mix of linebacker and defensive back and Petteway played linebacker in high school.
"I feel a lot more at home, but at the same time, I think I was getting used to being the bandit safety," he said.
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Holgorsen talked up the increase in the energy his team played with in the final three games of the regular season, but was asked how it happened since those changes generally come from the top and he is a rather calm character on the sideline
He conceded it was a good point, but countered with a point of his own.
"I'm not a rah-rah guy, but that doesn't mean I don't have any energy," he said. "I have plenty of energy. If I don't appear to have a whole lot of energy, I probably need to drink three or four more of these."
Holgorsen shook his right hand and the tall can of Red Bull he was holding. That's his signature beverage. He said he drinks "a couple" during the game.
"I don't keep track," he said.
One of the first visions WVU fans caught of Holgorsen after he was introduced as the offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting last December was as the Oklahoma State offensive coordinator chugging a can during the Alamo Bowl.
People haven't seen that this season.
"You're not looking close enough," he said.
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The Mountaineers can't say enough about the accommodations at the Orange Bowl, be it the WVU-themed buses, the police escort wherever the team goes, the fantastic Fontainebleu hotel or anything else provided by the game's organizers.
It's high praise since bowl perks aren't exactly new to a team that is playing in a 10th straight bowl game. For many, it's still different. Only a few are fifth-year seniors who were at the last BCS bowl, the 2998 Fiesta Bowl. A few more are true freshmen who were done with their season this time last year. Then there are the guys like Shaq Rowell.
Rowell played defensive tackle for Iowa Western Community College last season and helped the Reivers to the Top of the Mountain Bowl.
"You can't even compare the two," said Rowell, whose role as the backup nose guard will expand with Josh Taylor injured and out for the game. "Last year was crazy. It was cold. We were in Utah. It was a totally different experience versus being here in Miami with no snow."
Junior college players still get the coveted bowl swag, but it's not what it is at the Division I level. It's especially diffetent at the BCS level.
"We got a watch last year, but it was probably a $5 watch," he said. "As soon as we got here, we walked into a real nice bowl suite and picked out the gifts we wanted. I got a watch that probably cost 100 bucks."
The Mountaineers picked out Torneau watches. The brand's website lists watches that cost from $250 to more than $10,000.
Iowa Western stayed at a Marriott. The Mountaineers are staying at a world famous hotel in Miami Beach.
"It's something I never experienced before," Rowell said.
The Mountaineers are flanked by people who try to make anything they do as easy as possible. In a few days, the fans will arrive and swarm the team wherever it goes.
"We didn't have police escorts last year," Rowell said. "Nobody cared who was playing. They didn't know who we were."
The Orange Bowl will have perhaps 65,000 people in attendance. Rowell said he played for about a tenth of that last year.
"And that," he said, "was a really big crowd."
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Grant Redhead had a busy Friday. The football coach at South Fort Myers (Fla.) High went to Clemson's practice at Nova Southeastern University early in the afternoon and then traveled to Barry University to watch the Mountaineers.
At his first stop, he saw his former star receiver, Sammy Watkins, who was the Atlantic Coast Conference rookie of the year and first-team All-American. At his second stop, Redhead saw his former star cornerback, Brodrick Jenkins, who will start for WVU against the Tigers (10-3).
"We got them where they're at, but we just helped push them in the right direction," Redhead said. "They're two hard-working kids who did everything they needed to do. We're just real proud of them that they did make it on the field. They're both starters and they might get to go against each other."
Jenkins was all-state as a cornerback as a senior and played the Wildcat quarterback and slot receiver on offense. Watkins, two years younger, played safety and wide receiver.
"Brodrick was the one that put us on the map. I will say that," Redhead said. "We had some good players before him, but nobody of his Division I caliber. He got all the schools to come in and when they came to see him his senior spring, they saw this rangy freshman called Watkins. They said, 'OK, I like this kid. I like the way he runs,' and they all came back. Now spring is a busy time for me."