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Neal Brown hit the 'reset button' on WVU football following disappointing 2022 season

Apr. 20—MORGANTOWN — Neal Brown doesn't consider 2024 as the sixth year of his tenure at WVU. Brown's not in denial, and he's fully aware of what year it is and how long he's been in Morgantown.

It's more that Brown just isn't pretending like his tenure as the Mountaineers' head coach has been one smooth, continuous experience. Between COVID, the transfer portal and name image and likeness changes, the college football landscape is vastly different from when Brown first came to WVU in 2019.

All the while, the Mountaineers underachieved for the first four seasons under Brown. That's what ultimately made Brown decide to make drastic changes to the program.

"This is the way I look at it, after that season in 2022 where I felt like we underachieved, I just hit the reset button on a lot of it, " Brown said Wednesday. "I probably didn't have a six-year plan when I got here as far as thinking about what we'd look like going into year six in the spring."

The Mountaineers were plenty talented in 2022 with an experienced quarterback, dynamic wide receivers, an experienced offensive line and, on paper, a solid defense. But WVU went just 5-7 that season with early heartbreaking losses to Pitt and Kansas and some not-all-that-competitive losses to Texas, Texas Tech and Iowa State.

"After that '22 (season) when things didn't go the way I thought they should and we did not play as wall in any phase as I thought we were capable of, we just changed a lot of what we were doing, " Brown said. "There was a big reset in our program."

The early returns on the reset have been very positive. WVU went 9-4 last year, by far its most success under Brown. So instead of viewing 2024 as year six of his tenure, Brown is instead thinking of it as year two of the reset.

"We've taken this 12-month approach to who we are from a football identity standpoint and I think there's been some fruits to our labor, " Brown said. "For example, we're tackling much better in the spring because we're in month 16 of a total revamp of how we taught tackling and how we worked it."

The reset Brown talks about is all-encompassing, going from on-the-field play to lockerroom dynamics even to the kinds of players WVU will recruit.

"From a simple football point, we want to be a team that is disciplined, strains, is tough and is smart, " Brown said. "All of those traits take absolutely no talent. We have things that we do from our winter program to spring ball, to summer, into fall camp and the season that we are working on that identity of who we have to be to be successful."

The on-the-field changes were apparent to fans last season and the behind-the-scenes changes were just as obvious to players.

"It's culture and just putting the right guys in the lockerroom that want to work hard, that want to take accountability for their mistakes and that show up early and they're willing to put in the work, " offensive lineman Ja'Quay Hubbard said. "Being great is not easy, showing up an hour and a half before you have to is not easy, staying extra for game film when everybody else is maybe going to have fun isn't easy and I think (Brown) has been able to bring and retain those type of guys."

Hubbard is entering his fifth year at WVU, one of the longest-tenured Mountaineers on the team. He's seen both sides of the reset and saw how it changed the team.

"We really had to go back to the drawing board (after 2022) and say 'What's going on ?'" Hubbard said. "Everyone had to look themselves in the mirror and fix it."

Hubbard said one of the team's biggest issues previously was the attitude of certain players in the lockerroom.

"I think our problem in the past was we had really talented guys who could be energy vampires, " he said. "They were productive, but they would complain, they would point fingers and that was really unfortunate. They were some of the best players on the team, but at the same time, they're not helping."

The key, according to Hubbard, was finding players who could not only produce on the field but could also enhance the lockerroom.

"Just finding the guys who can produce, mixed with good character and integrity goes a long way, " he said. "Coach Brown has done a great job of bringing in guys who match our culture. Now if you try to come in with that type of mindset, you would just feel out of place, because no one's putting up with that."

Brown's reset wasn't just about changing how current players act, but also getting any newcomers to buy in.

"If you have no leaders on a football team, you can have all the talent in the world and you'll be the worst football team, " said sophomore linebacker Ben Cutter, a true freshman in 2023. "No one's coming together, no one's working as a team. If you have a whole bunch of guys who are selfish on defense, jumping out of their gaps, not holding their leverage, not working stunts with other people, your defense is going to fall apart."

The program-wide change has been successful so far for Brown and the Mountaineers, but one good season doesn't mean much unless the success continues.

"I'm pleased where we're at 16 months into it, " Brown said, "but we have not arrived."