Kirkland's second season at UC off to smooth start
As Charleston coach Pat Kirkland watches his team executing the systems he put in place this spring, he has one thought repeating in his mind - what a difference a year makes.
At this time last year, the Golden Eagles were just getting acclimated with first-year head coach Kirkland and vice versa. The transition took a bit longer than anyone would've probably hoped, as UC stumbled out to a 0-5 start before turning it around to the tune of a 5-1 mark down the stretch.
It's that late surge of momentum that Kirkland says his team is riding heading into tonight's spring game, which will begin at 7 p.m. at University of Charleston Stadium.
"The big thing is that last year at this time, I was still learning names," Kirkland said. "The guys were learning new schemes, a new coaching staff, and a new tempo. Now we're past that. We came in and started building from where we left off in the fall. It's been a much smoother transition and we are so much further ahead than where we were at this time last year."
Familiarity should be rampant in the Golden Eagles camp this year as the team lost just a handful of seniors from last season and return 16-of-22 starters.
Among those in the long list of returners are the vast majority of UC's skill players, including junior quarterback Maurice Leak and senior running back Jordan Roberts.
The duo spearheaded the best rushing attack in the West Virginia Conference last season. Roberts led the league with 1,430 yards (130 per game) on the ground while Leak added 575 rushing yards (52.3 per game), good enough for eighth-best.
Roberts also led the league in scoring (108 points), touchdowns (18), and all-purpose yardage (2,274).
But Roberts has been a non-participant in spring practice and won't go tonight as he has been sidelined with mononucleosis. Kirkland said his tailback would be fine by fall and could go tonight if it were a game, but the coaching staff has decided to shut him down.
The good side of that has been the emergence of sophomore running back C.J. Stallworth, who Kirkland said has been one of the most impressive players in the spring.
"I've been pleasantly surprised with C.J. Stallworth," Kirkland said. "He's kind of taken the reins over with Jordan out. He's just a big, physical, athletic kid. It was tough to evaluate him in the fall from day one because he was hurt in August. He never really got healthy unttil Week 7 or 8, and by then we were rolling and had things established. I'm really excited about him."
Leak, on the other hand, has been in the fold and will look to improve on his passing numbers from last season (1,295 yards, eight touchdowns, 11 interceptions).
"Every day he gets older and we get better," Kirkland said of Leak. "It's one more day to get into the film room. He's not a guy that yells and screams, but he leads by example. He knows the offense and he's our field general."
Lately, it's been a pretty lean time for the West Virginia State football program.
The Yellow Jackets have gone just 1-19 in the past two seasons, although the team was much more competitive last season than two years ago.
As spring practice culminates in State's spring scrimmage at noon on Saturday, the Jackets will again be very inexperienced, as several players have exited the program due to graduation or dismissal.
But after the way the last two years have gone, who's to say that a clean slate is necessarily a bad thing?
State coach Earl Monroe, for one, has been pleased with what he has seen thus far.
"The guys are working hard," Monroe said. "There hasn't been any whining or crying, the guys have just worked, lifted weights, and run. We cleaned house. There were several guys sent home in the offseason and some of them were starters. But it has been all positive and the attitudes are good. We got rid of some bad apples and hopefully that sent a message to the rest of them."
Returning quarterback Ricky Phillips has been inactive in the spring due to an eligibility issue, but will be ready in the fall. Phillips will have to make due with a largely new stable of weapons as leading receiver Landon Johnson and top rusher Fabian Payne both graduated.
In addition to finding successors for a plethora of positions, Monroe and his staff have also been tasked with dealing with a number of injuries and recruiting.
Still, Monroe has chosen to see the upside.
"We've got to take a positive out of every situation," Monroe said. "We've been banged up quite a bit. We've got several guys coming off surgeries and nagging injuries out of the fall that they didn't quite get rehabbed. But that allows other guys that didn't play as much to learn the offense and defense. Sometimes we've had to play some guys out of position, and having to put some safeties at outside linebacker allows you to work on your nickel and dime situations. Things like that."
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