The death of Connecticut cornerback and punt returner Jasper Howard dominated the WVU head coach’s thoughts in his weekly postgame conference call, conducted early Sunday afternoon.
Howard, a junior, was stabbed to death in the early hours of Sunday morning at a dance at the UConn student union.
Only hours earlier, he had figured prominently into the Huskies’ 38-25 victory over Louisville, forcing a Cardinals fumble at the UConn 4-yard line with his team holding a tenuous 31-13 lead.
“To Jasper Howard’s family in Florida; to (Connecticut head coach) Randy Edsall and the coaching staff; and to Jasper’s teammates, we are absolutely heartbroken and stunned, as I’m sure the nation is, in regards to what happened on that campus in the early morning hours after such a tremendous win and a great game that young man played,” said Mountaineer head coach Bill Stewart.
Stewart, who also serves as the special teams coordinator, had to deal with Howard a season ago when he was returning punts for the Huskies. He said that having to prepare his punt coverage team to deal with the Miami, Fla., native was difficult because he was “an absolute terror out there.”
“He was a leader, and he looked like a fun-loving guy,” Stewart said. “I am just sick for Randy and for Jasper’s family -- how short and sweet life is. Our West Virginia players are upset at this time. They know this young man.”
Stewart said that the WVU program would do something to honor the memory of Howard when UConn visits Milan Puskar Stadium this Saturday for the Mountaineers’ Homecoming game. The head coach was working with other at the university, at the Big East office and at Connecticut to determine exactly what exactly would transpire.
While the second-year coach was clearly thinking about the situation in Storrs, Conn., he also had his own players to worry about.
Quarterback Jarrett Brown, who sustained a minor concussion on the fourth play of West Virginia’s 24-7 win over Marshall, was not cleared to practice Sunday. He is officially being termed day-to-day.
“I don’t know if he will play this week or not,” Stewart said. “We will just have to see. He’s not going to practice today -- and we’re just going out in helmets and vests. What does that tell you? That’s not good.”
The play on which Brown was injured occurred when a pair of Herd defenders, including Ashton Hall (who was credited with forcing the QB’s fumble on the play), met with the WVU senior in a helmet-to-helmet collision. Stewart wouldn’t go as far as to actually say that he thought the hit was not clean, but he made his feelings known without having to do so.
“I’m never supposed to lie, so I’ll have to plead the fifth on that one,” Stewart said after being asked if the hit was clean. “That is something that is going to be discussed in other venues.”
Beyond that, the head coach said his team would “just have to see” about the status of Scooter Berry, who was leg-whipped during the game and seems to be questionable for this weekend’s game against the Huskies.
Fullback Ryan Clarke, who had dealt with a pinched nerve sustained in practice during the week leading up to the MU game, but Stewart said that Clarke could have played if it had been absolutely necessary and would likely return to the lineup against UConn.
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One of the bright spots during the game was how well some of the backups played in relief of some of those injured players -- most notably, the performance of freshman quarterback Geno Smith as he had to take over for Brown.
Smith was 15-of-21 passing for 147 yards and one touchdown. He was 10-of-12 in the second half for 117 of those yards, helping WVU finally crack a Marshall defense that was selling out to slow down the running game.
“The simple pass in the flat to Noel Devine was about the third or fourth read,” Stewart said. “That was colossal. The throw to Will Johnson on the short-yardage play was a laser right at the chains. He went in there and never panicked. He really played pretty well.”
Smith and other reserves have to be prepared to come into the game at a moment’s notice -- a point Stewart and his staff repeatedly emphasize to the players who are not a part of the starting lineup.
“It’s a physical game,” the head coach said. “People get hurt. You just have to continue on the march.”
Stewart explained that his philosophy has long been to give second-team players three snaps in practice for every five plays for the starters. That might seem to be a relatively high ratio, but the result is a better-prepared group of backups than might otherwise exist.
“That’s why the twos (second-teamers) aren’t flubs when they go in there,” he said.