WHEELING - West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen wants to reconnect his team with the Mountaineers fan base. It started Saturday when WVU arrived at Wheeling Island Stadium as an estimated 1,500 people filled the stands to watch West Virginia take the field in their first open practice of the spring.
''It's always fun to come to Wheeling,'' Holgorsen said, ''we've had nothing but good times here. I appreciate the good weather. We might come up here every day if the weather is like this.''
The practice lasted for about two and a half hours and included offensive and defensive drill sessions as well as a full 11-on-11 scrimmage that took place in the final 20 minutes.
Photos by Tony Viola
West Virginia University offensive line coach and former Parkersburg South player Ron Crook, center, instructs lineman Steve Underwood, left, and Tony Matteo during spring practice Saturday at Wheeling Island Stadium. An estimated 1,500 people attended the Mountaineers’ first open practice.
''Our guys are excited about this,'' Holgorsen said. ''The idea originated because spring practice gets redundant. To be able to change things up a little bit is good for our guys.
''It's got a little bit of a road game feel to it, too. Being able to go out and practice on the road, in a different environment, ignore the surroundings, and just go out and play ball is really good.''
The practice gave fans an opportunity to see quarterback Skyler Howard, a junior college transfer, as well as running back Rushel Shell, a Pitt transfer, for the first time.
''Skyler does some things well,'' Holgorsen said. ''He also struggles with some things as well. Naturally he does a great job of extending the play, which was a problem we had last year at the quarterback spot.
''Rushel has done a good job. He's trying to grasp the offense and what he's doing.
''Once we get these guys to the point where they aren't thinking about what they are doing, that's when they'll be good. The guys like Karl Joseph and KJ Dillon know what they are doing. Those guys aren't thinking about what they need to do, so they are able to react a lot better. Kevin White, Mario Alford, Dreamius Smith and Adam Pankey all know what to do now. We are able to see those guys improve, because they aren't thinking. The new guys are still thinking.''
Howard took the majority of the snaps with the first team offense during the brief scrimmage, while Paul Millard and Logan Moore also saw time under center.
The practice also gave fans a chance to see new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson on the sidelines.
''I thought the kids came out and executed well,'' Gibson said. ''Great crowd, great people in this area that support our program. Any time we can do this for our fans is good.''
Gibson, who is in his second stint with the Mountaineers, returned to WVU after serving as the assistant head coach, safeties coach and defensive special teams' coordinator at Arizona during the 2012 season. The Wildcats finished 8-5 overall and won the Gildan New Mexico Bowl.
Another new face on the sidelines this year is Tom Bradley, who will serve as the senior associate head coach as well as defensive line coach.
''He's tremendous person,'' Holgorsen said. ''He's a great guy to talk to, and he's got tons of stories which are fun to hear. His knowledge of the game and his knowledge of defense, how to motivate kids is phenomenal. He's got a great amount of experience. He's as good as they come.''
Bradley brings 33 years of coaching experience, all at Penn State, including defensive coordinator from 2000-2011 and serving the final four games as the interim head coach. He helped the Nittany Lions finish with 13 double-figure win seasons, 20 seasons with at least nine wins and 26 bowl appearances, including the 1982 and the 1996 national championships.
Following the practice, the Mountaineers paid a visit to the Mountaineer Athletic Club as well as the 1100 Club.
''While we are in town here we wanted to get with some of the boosters and talk with them,'' Holgorsen said. ''The players like this too. They like having eyes on them. The monotony of just practice without anyone watching can get tiresome. To be able to get out here in front of fans is good. It means a lot to Mountaineer Nation that we are able to get out here and show that we are working hard to try and put a better product out on the field next year.''
The Mountaineers will hit the road again on April 5 when they head to Laidley Field in Charleston for another open practice. Spring practice will conclude with the annual Gold-Blue Game on April 12 at 1 p.m.