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July 14, 2021

Neal Brown

Arlington, Texas, USA

West Virginia Mountaineers

Press Conference

NEAL BROWN: Good morning, it's officially football season. Glad to see each of you. Glad to be back here. I want to say this: I thank you all for being here. Appreciate what each of you in the media do for our game of college football, and what you do to promote college football.

Proud to represent the Big 12 Conference and West Virginia University. Players that are joining us here today, we have defensive lineman Dante Stills, a senior, representing Fairmont Senior High School in West Virginia, one of our own. Think he's got a chance to really have a breakout senior season. His brother, Darius, played for us. And then running back Leddie Brown, First Team All-Conference player a year ago, went over 1,000 yards in just ten games. And both those guys -- Leddie is from Delaware, played his senior year in high school at Neumann Goretti there. Both those guys are tremendous representatives of our football program, and proud they are here to join us today.

Also want to mention here in this forum, just the tremendous leadership that the Big 12 with Commissioner Bowlsby and Ed Stewart over the last 18 months. I think they have done a tremendous job navigating all the challenges, everything that's changing in the landscape of college football. And also our athletic director, Shane Lyons, who leads the Division I Council now, before that was the lead on the Football Oversight Committee, and made so many decisions that enabled us to play college football last year. So in this forum, I wanted to recognize those individuals.

As a program, we continue to climb. We're making progress. And if you think about it off the field, we just finished up $5 million worth of program enhancements. That's really had a positive effect, and we've got a lot of momentum in recruiting right now.

Continuing off the field, academically, our guys had a 3.11 GPA in the spring semester. We graduated a hundred percent of our guys, going back over the last 19 months, we are really proud of them in that area.

Then culturally, I think our buy-in is extremely high right now and we made tremendous progress over the last two years with the culture within our football program.

Then on the field, I really like our team. I'll say that at the front. I think our leadership is better than at any point since I was named head coach in January of 2019.

Starting on defense, I thought we had one of the best defensive units in the Big 12 Conference last year and nationally, and our statistics back that up. Really, that's going to be the unit with the most experience. That's going to be the unit that will lead us again. I think it starts up front on our defensive line. Talked about Dante (Stills) who was one of our most improved players in the spring, and also Akheem Mesidor, who was Freshman All-American last year, I think we moved him inside. I think he's got really an opportunity to be a special player in our league.

At linebacker, Josh Chandler is going to step into the role that Tony Fields did just a great job in last year at the Mike linebacker position. We have some moving pieces at that position. I think fall camp is going to determine how we go into the season feeling about that, the linebacker position.

The secondary, we return both starting safeties, Sean Mahone, Alonzo Addae, that have played a lot of football in this league and at an elite level. Nicktroy Fortune returns at corner.

So a lot of returning players in the secondary. And we had -- I think we ended the season as the No. 1 pass defense in the country last year.

Offensively, we made growth. We struggled, didn't play very well the last two games of the season offensively, I think that skewed the stats. But for the first time we have experience on that side of the ball, especially up front. For us to make a step in our league, and we went from kind of the bottom in 2019 to the middle of 2020, for us to make the next step to the top tier is we have to be more productive on that side of the ball. Starts at quarterback. Jarret Doege returns. Thought he played really well during the middle part of the season last year. He probably had the best spring of anybody on the offensive side of the ball. Running back, Leddie Brown, we talked about him. I think he's special. His video showed that last year. We have to develop some depth at his position.

And then receiver is going to be -- we've got guys that have played football now for two years and we have talent in that room. They have had a good spring, and they have to make the next step. I think how they play is going to determine the success of our offense. Up front, we have five guys that have played a lot of college football, and we have a couple young guys that I think will be factored into that position.

And at tight end we returned Mike O'Laughlin. Again, I think he's played a lot of football, and he's ready to take and be one of the top tight ends in our league.

And then special teams, a lot of importance there. I think we have to be better in the return game. That's something we've really challenged our players. And we have to be more consistent kicking and punting. We've had more athleticism than we've had at any point in the last two years. So I think our coverage units will continue to be productive, and that's the plan.

Schedule-wise, very challenging, play 11 Power Fives. We're one of four universities that play 11 Power Five, nine league games, as you know, and we play two regional rivals. And the regional rivals are important for our fan base. We open at Maryland, which is going to be a challenge, and Week Three we welcome Virginia Tech, and going back to the Big East days, one of the main rivals for our program. We are looking forward to the challenge.

With that, I'll open up for questions.

Q. All of your losses except for one last season were only two-score losses. What are you looking to focus on offensively this season to close that gap?

NEAL BROWN: So we finished 6-4 last year. Really, we're in the game. The other three games, right, till about the two-minute mark with an opportunity with the ball to score and take the lead in two of those games. So, again, defensively you look at the scores of those games, we were right into it.

What we have to do is -- third downs and red zone -- are the most important pieces for us offensively to take advantage of. We have to score touchdowns. We're going to kick field goals in the red zone, and then on third down we have to be able to convert, especially in the middle.

Q. You're picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll. Are people sleeping on West Virginia, and what do you have to do to get higher up in the rankings?

NEAL BROWN: Well, can't control where you're at in preseason. I'm sure there's reasons why we're there. It's like I tell our players, you either prove them right or you prove them wrong. And our goal this season is to prove them wrong, and to do that you have to play better and to play better you have to practice better. That's our goal and what we're focused on. Our theme for this year is to be better, and that's the objective in every phase is to be better.

Q. You mentioned just now that Jarret (Doege) was your most improved player on offense in the spring. One obvious area for improvement on offense is more explosiveness in the passing game. Is that an area or improvement or where did he impress you?

NEAL BROWN: Two things with Jarret in the spring is pocket awareness and pocket movement, and second thing was really his accuracy on the deep ball. That's something that we've got -- as an offense, we have to be more explosive. We missed too many shots down the field. We had people open a lot of times that we didn't connect. We had some drops that were a factor in that. But we have got to be more explosive.

If you look at teams that have played at an elite level, they are not grounding out drives. They are explosive plays. And to have explosive plays, you have to be able to break tackles, you have to be elite, run after the catch, or you have to hit shots down the field.

And we think we have some guys in Leddie Brown and others that can break tackles, and we have guys, Winston Wright, Sam James, that have shown the ability to run of the catch. But we have to make a step and it's a significant step, is having more explosive plays.

Q. You only had Tony (Fields) last year, but what does it take and what are you looking at to replace his production for what he was able to do across the middle of the field in second and third level of defense?

NEAL BROWN: What Tony Fields did so well, and it's important to note, Tony got to us about three days into fall camp. He wasn't there in summer, nobody had spring ball, so he wasn't there then, but he was an eraser for us, and he played the game at full speed, was really fast sideline-to-sideline and could match up coverage-wise with running backs in our league.

I think what we have to do is not one person necessarily makes that. We have to do a better job as a linebacker corps in general of playing in the box, which we are capable of doing. And we have to do a better job when we blitz. We didn't do a good enough job last year blitzing.

But I like the guys. We have guys that are unproven. Josh Chandler played extremely well in our Bowl game. I was telling the ESPNU crew, if you look at our Bowl game, the people that we lost on defense, outside of Darius, they didn't play in a Bowl game, and we still played at an elite level versus a very difficult offense to defend.

So we've got guys with experience. Josh Chandler was the MVP of the Bowl game, and then we have Lance Dixon who transferred, Exree Loe has played a lot of football for us, and then we have Deshawn Stevens who just transferred in from Maine. So we have guys that have played football at a high level. Just they have got to get reps within our system.

Q. I know you've put in a bunch of programs to address a lot of the things around football, but how are you and your staff making time for yourselves with all these new demands and how are you making sure that football remains the focus?

NEAL BROWN: First of all, thanks, we had all these Longhorn question and finally got a West Virginia question, so I appreciate it.

But I think this is a challenging time for coaches. What I mean is we're in an evolving world, and I don't know if anybody will sit at this podium necessarily has answers for what the future of our game looks like. As far as football, I think you have to keep our guys -- the two main priorities that our players have right now are academics and football and you have to maintain those.

Now, I think they can continue within the right structure. They can maintain those priorities and still profit off name, image and likeness. They can still do things socially. I think those are all possible.

As coaches, the important piece with the players is relationships. None of that changes. Name, Image and Likeness, that doesn't change. You have to focus on relationships, and I think for our staff's perspective, that's what our focus is. And then everybody on our staff was hired because they are experts in football. And we have to continue to maintain that expertise by staying up on schemes, staying up on evaluations, those type of things.

So all the stuff on the perimeter, whether it's our fifth-quarter program, whether it's different time demands due to name, image, likeness, we have to keep the main things the main things. That's the role of the head coach, to make sure that myself and our staff and everybody, players-wise, as well, are keeping the main things the main things.

Q. This is kind of a West Virginia question. I wanted to ask you about Spencer Rattler, and you guys were the only team in the league who did not face him.

NEAL BROWN: Prepared for him twice. Does that count?

Q. You're ready from that perspective. Does that give any scouting disadvantage? How do you approach him when you play him this year?

NEAL BROWN: I don't think it's an advantages or disadvantage. We did prepare twice, one game postponed and the other canceled. I was impressed with his growth from the beginning of the season to the end, and that's a credit to Lincoln (Riley) and the offensive staff.

The thing he does that shows up on film, because we saw Oklahoma a lot on crossover film, so we watched him a lot as we went through our Big 12 season last year, he's got elite arm talent. He has the unique ability to buy time and create with his feet, he's a creator. And he has great players around him, and that's not going to change.

Q. Would you be willing to share your approach to the COVID vaccination to your players, how you are handling that?

NEAL BROWN: Just from an educational standpoint. Not a medical expert. We bring our medical team in front. I think our team has been well-versed. It's an individual decision. I can speak from personal experience. I've been vaccinated. My wife was vaccinated, 13-year-old daughter, my parents, my wife's parents. So to share personal experience, but as far as advice, that comes from our medical community.

Q. New coaches talk about the buy-in and when the players in the program start to buy in. Can you talk about when that occurred for you and how your culture is growing?

NEAL BROWN: I think when we started having success towards the end of the 2019 season, we won two of our last three games which was a turning point which gave us an opportunity heading into the 2020 season to take a step. I really feel strongly if we were able to play our full schedule, the improvement would have been even more so. If you look at the improvement offensively and defensively, we were one of the most improved units on both sides of the ball. That's for me when it starts.

We have to continue to grow and I think we are. It's a culture and it's a talent. All of those things have to continue to improve.

Q. From a defensive perspective, obviously you guys were thrust into a strange situation last year, so from like a call perspective, can you explain how things worked last year and how are they going to change this year?

NEAL BROWN: Jordan Lesley called our defense last year. He'll call our defense this year. Last year he assisted in the secondary by Jahmile Addae, and he did a very good job for us. And ShaDon Brown moved over from Louisville and took his place and he'll have that same role.

We take a staff approach to offense and defense and how we call our games. Jordan is the play caller on defense and he gets input from everyone on our staff. ShaDon has been a defensive coordinator caller throughout his career. Dontae Wright who coaches safety has called defense at lower levels. Jeff Koonz was a defensive coordinator at Cincinnati.

And so we have a lot of experience. Jeff Castillo was off the field for us in an analyst role. Everybody in that room has an opportunity to give input but Jordan makes the final decision.

Again, I appreciate y'all being here, and before closing I want to give a shout-out to our sports information department, Mike Fragale and Mike Montoro; Monty is a star here as he shuffles out. They do a tremendous job with our team and they have done a great job getting our players ready for this. So I want to say thanks to them, as well.

Y'all have a great day. Appreciate you being here.

FastScripts Transcript by ASAP Sports

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