Mountaineers to face rookie Tennessee coach Saturday

Photo courtesy of West Virginia University Head coaches Dana Holgorsen, left, of WVU and Jeremy Pruitt, right, of Tennessee will clash Saturday.

MORGANTOWN — There’s nothing quite like that first game as a head football coach, which is what Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt will be encountering this Saturday when his Volunteers face 17th-ranked West Virginia at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

As the top guy, Pruitt gets the headset with all three channels so he can make all of the final decisions on what they do on offense, defense and special teams.

Earlier today, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was asked what he remembered about his first game wearing the headsets with unlimited access to all three channels.

“I remember it very vividly, honestly, for a couple of different reasons,” he laughed.

Holgorsen’s first-ever game as head coach in 2011 was at Milan Puskar Stadium against state rival Marshall and its coach Doc Holliday, a former WVU player and assistant coach who possessed intimate knowledge of the Mountaineer football program.

However, what made that game so memorable for Holgorsen was what happened while it was going on, and how it ended so abruptly.

“We had lightning. We had rainstorms. We had a couple two-hour delays,” Holgorsen remembered. “I was having so much damned fun coaching in my first game that I had an opportunity to do it for about 12 straight hours.”

Holgorsen admitted there was some anxiety beforehand because of all the unknowns surrounding it.

“I had some older guys on the team, and they kind of looked at me and said, ‘Are you nervous?’ I said, ‘No, man, I don’t get nervous about these things.’ There’s a little bit of anxiety that goes on before the game but not nervousness, so to speak,” Holgorsen said. “They all said, ‘Coach, we’ve got your back and we’re going to go out there and win you your first football game,’ which they did, but the unique part of it was it was only a three-quarter game.”

Even though the game ended prematurely, West Virginia was in complete control, leading the Herd by 21 points when the two schools huddled together and decided to end it early in the fourth quarter after the Mountaineers had gone ahead 34-13.

Other games that afternoon were halted or ended prematurely around the country because of the same storm system working its way through the midsection of the country.

Couple that with all of the unknowns surrounding his first game, and it was a fairly anxiety-filled afternoon for Holgorsen.

“Yeah, that anxiety before the game exists, there’s no question,” Holgorsen concluded.

• There are always uncertainties when preparing for an opening-game opponent, but in the case of Tennessee, there are multiple variables considering the newness of the Volunteer coaching staff and Jeremy Pruitt’s willingness to play two quarterbacks on Saturday.

During an appearance Sunday on the Vol Network’s football preseason special, Pruitt indicated that Stanford transfer Keller Chryst and redshirt sophomore Jarrett Guarantano could see action against the Mountaineers.

Sophomore Will McBride and freshman J.T. Shrout haven’t been publicly ruled out yet, either.

Holgorsen admitted it will be a tricky deal for his defensive staff in preparing for multiple quarterbacks in a season opener.

“Coaches are pretty diligent people, and we want to try and prepare our guys for any situation that they may encounter out there on Saturday,” he said. “And any time you get a new staff together that makes it challenging.

“There have been a few times where we’ve got tricked or we got fooled and we had to come up with some sideline adjustments quicker than we anticipated when it was a completely veteran coaching staff coming back, so you’ve always got to be on guard with that game one,” Holgorsen said.

He also noted that he’s thankful he’s got a veteran coaching staff with its core group being together now for multiple years to be able to handle some of the curveballs thrown at them.

“New coaching staffs, when it’s new in all three phases, it makes it challenging,” he said. “We have a pretty older, veteran group of guys, but there are only so many things they can do so once we kind of settle in I think the sideline adjustments are going to be better.”

Holgorsen, too, will have some surprises for Tennessee, and he also indicated Monday that several position battles have not been completely settled because competition for those jobs have been keen.

A couple of those ongoing battles are taking place on the offensive line, specifically at center between returner Matt Jones and emerging sophomore Jacob Buccigrossi, who missed last year with a knee injury, and at right guard between returner Isaiah Hardy and the Brown brothers, Joe and Michael, from Eastern Arizona College.

Overall, Holgorsen said he’s been very pleased with the development of his offensive line thus far this fall.

“With the tackle spots with Yodny (Cajuste) coming back for his fifth year at left tackle and Colton (McKivitz) being a three-year starter at right tackle, that allows me to sleep a little better at night knowing that we’re going to be able to protect Will (Grier) back there,” Holgorsen said.

“We needed depth in the middle. We’ve lost a couple of guys there from the previous year, but we’ve got a good battle going on at center with Jones and Buccigrossi, and we’ve added the Brown brothers, Joe and Michael Brown, to go along The coach also has some continuity on the O-line this year with veteran coach Joe Wickline overseeing the group for the second straight season, and his third year in the program now.

“Last year was kind of new to the guys because he took over that whole group so they understand his language and his calls and how he does things, which makes it better as well,” Holgorsen explained.

• Nobody can criticize Holgorsen and the Mountaineers for dodging anybody right out of the gate.

For the fourth time in the last five years West Virginia is opening its season against a Power 5 opponent.

And for the third time in the last five years the game will not be played in Milan Puskar Stadium.

In 2014, WVU began the season against third-ranked Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta and two years ago the Mountaineers opened the 2016 season in Morgantown against Missouri.

Last year, West Virginia lifted the lid on 2017 in Landover, Maryland, against 21st-ranked Virginia Tech.

“Obviously we like it –and it’s not going to end anytime soon,” Holgorsen admitted.