NOTEBOOK: Marchiol, Vesterinen and Martin among WVU's most improved players this spring

Apr. 11—MORGANTOWN — You can't win any games in the spring. No matter what happens over the next two weeks, West Virginia will open the 2024 season with a 0-0 record.

Spring is all about getting better and that is what the Mountaineers have been focused on the past three weeks.

On Wednesday, WVU head coach Neal Brown went through who he believes are the Mountaineers' most improved players through the team's eight spring practices so far. Included on the list were offensive lineman Nick Malone, backup quarterback Nicco Marchiol, defensive linemen Sean Martin and Edward Vesterinen and a host of players who haven't seen the field yet but are pushing for playing time.

Offense On the offensive line, Malone, a Morgantown native, is stepping into a full-time starting role after serving as the unit's top backup last season.

"I think Malone is a guy that, through the middle part of the spring, I've really been pleased with the step he's taken, " Brown said. "He's played the least amount of all those guys."

Also along the line, Brown made note of backup center Landen Livingston.

"(Starting center Brandon) Yates is out for a couple of days—nothing serious—so Landen Livingston is getting a bunch of reps at center, " Brown said. "I've been pleased with him. He's a guy that, if he's not the most improved player on offense, he's in the discussion."

Livingston, a redshirt sophomore, has not played yet for WVU but is the frontrunner to be the team's backup center this season.

"He's a very coachable kid and he's playing with really good technique, " offensive line coach Matt Moore said. "Strength has always been where he needs to catch up and he's starting to catch up with that."

Also on offense, Brown brought up Marchiol, the team's backup quarterback. A redshirt sophomore, Marchiol made his first and only career start last season and has led the team to three victories as an injury replacement in his young career.

"It starts with his preparation, which sounds really simple, " Brown said. "From a fundamental standpoint, he's much more compact right now. And his confidence has risen because he's gotten a lot of repetitions and the game's slowed down.

"Nicco would be right in that conversation as the most improved player we've got on offense. I'm really pleased with what he's doing."

Quarterbacks coach Tyler Allen explained that Marchiol's improvements have mainly come from the mental side of the game.

"The mental part of the game from when he was in high school was always about looking at receivers, " Allen said. "It gets him in trouble a lot of times because, at this level, you can't just look at a receiver.

"It's a lot more film study and he's really come around to how do you sit there and watch film as a quarterback. He's really come a long way as far as anticipating throws."

Defense On defense, Brown highlighted a couple of returning starters in Vesterinen and Martin as well as a handful of underclassmen.

Vesterinenm, a senior from Finland, got his first real playing time last season and turned in 28 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.

"As a technician, he's grown so much, it looks like he's been playing football for 10-12 years now, " defensive line coach Andrew Jackson said. "He's actually teaching the young guys now so he's come full circle."

Part of Vesterinen's development has always been tied to building a deeper understanding of football.

"He came in not even really speaking English and not speaking football jargon, " Jackson said. "Now he's a class clown and he's hip on all the American stuff. He's eating fast food and getting fat like the rest of us."

Martin, an in-state product from Bluefield, has been a solid role player and eventual starter over the last three seasons, but Brown believes he's primed for a breakout senior campaign.

"He's up to a weight now where he's really powerful and he's one of the strongest guys, " Brown said. "He's always been one of our hardest workers, but now it's starting to click how to use his strength. I think it's starting to show he can maybe be a dominant player at times."

Across 43 career games, Martin has racked up 76 tackles with 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks.

Like Marchiol on offense, part of Martin's improvement has come from the mental side of the game.

"I think if I passed out right now, Sean would be able to take over the coaching side of the room, " Jackson said. "The consistency piece has shown up since January and I think he's in the best mental state since he's been here."

As for defensive players ready to make a name for themselves, Brown listed middle linebackers Ben Cutter and Caden Biser and outside linebacker Tyrin Bradley.

Cutter, a sophomore, started several games down the stretch last season as a third-string injury replacement. Biser, whose father Sean is the head football coach at Morgantown High, is a former walk-on who played considerable snaps in the team's bowl game. Bradley transferred from Abilene Christian before last season and registered 2.5 sacks.

Walk-ons WVU has had great success developing walk-ons in recent years. Former walk-ons like Malone and receivers Preston Fox and Hudson Clement have all gone on to earn scholarships and play big roles on the team.

As for walk-ons on this year's team, Brown mainly focused on the impact they can make on special teams this season. Receiver CJ Cole, for example, could start on three special teams units.

University High graduates Colin McBee and Donald Brandal are both pushing for special teams snaps. Defensive lineman Derek Berlitz, whose brother Danny Berlitz has set multiple school records for the WVU swim team, is also pushing for time on special teams.

Freshman running back Clay Ash enrolled early at WVU and is already providing quality depth in the backfield.

Injuries Junior defensive back Jacolby Spells will miss the rest of the spring and potentially some of fall camp with an upper-body injury that required surgery. Brown said he expects Spells to be able to play when the season starts.