Hilltoppers Shift Focus to Season Opener
WEST LIBERTY, W.Va. – With two weeks of a productive preseason camp in the rear view mirror, veteran head football coach Roger Waialae and his West Liberty squad are shifting their focus as classes get under way on the WLU campus.
"After we wrapped up camp this weekend, we gave everybody Monday off so they could turn their full attention to the first day of class," Waialae said. "When they come back to practice Tuesday, we start game-prep for next week’s season opener. The guys are pretty excited about that."
After going 2-2 during an abbreviated Spring 2021 "season" due to the pandemic, Waialae was generally pleased with the team's progress during his 16th preseason camp at the Hilltopper helm. He said the altered schedule which replaced the traditional spring practice period turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
"The NCAA's decision to let freshmen play in the spring without costing them a year's eligibility really helped flatten the learning curve," Waialae said. "There’s no substitute for game speed. Several of our guys picked up the mental aspect so quickly that they're fighting for spots on the 2-deep this month. A year ago, they’d probably have been sitting out a red-shirt year."
Waialae welcomed back more than 50 returning lettermen and 18 starters from the spring. While the Hilltoppers are still a relatively young squad, that's a significant level of experience and it shone through at various points during preseason drills.
Coming out of camp, Waialae identified his two strongest position groups as the offensive and defensive lines.
Not only are all five starters returning up front for the WLU offense, several other linemen with starting experience are also back. That group meshed so well in the spring that the Hilltoppers averaged nearly 200 rushing yards a game over the last three games with tailback Quincy Wimbish posting back-to-back 100-yard rushing games.
"This is the first time since I've been here that we've had all five starters back on the offensive line," Waialae said. "They've been jelling really well and playing well together but the biggest thing to me is the quality depth. We have nine guys back who played in the spring and a few others who sat out as a precaution. We take 10 offensive linemen on the road with us so we're going to be leaving some pretty good football players at home this fall."
It's a similar situation on the other side of the football. While there were some questions about depth on the interior over the winter, several answers emerged during the spring.
The Hilltoppers are loaded at defensive end with All-MEC standout David Gilcreast joined by fellow junior playmakers Kenyon Felder and Trevor Hoosier. Senior pass-rushing specialist Jack Davis has been an impact performer and converted linebacker Devon McNutt adds even more speed.
On the inside, transfer Brodrick Watson emerged as a force to be reckoned with in the spring along with fellow transfer Damion Brown and true freshman John Brown (no relation). Converted offensive lineman T.J. Lew is making a smooth transition while freshman Delano Marcelus has also thrown his helmet into the ring.
“We accomplished pretty much everything we wanted to in terms of preparation for the season over the past two weeks,” Waialae said. “From a football standpoint, we’re in good shape. We held Wimbish out for the last week with a little swelling in his foot but for the most part, we came through pretty injury-free. Now it’s time to turn the page and get ready for the season.”
The Hilltoppers kick off their 96th season of intercollegiate football on Sept. 2 when they welcome Walsh (Ohio) to West Family Stadium for a 7 p.m. kickoff.