2011-2012 WVU Football Season Preview- Offense
For the first time since the all-too-precise date of September 6, 2008, WVU fans have hope.
That hope is for the resurgence of a program that from 2005 to 2007 finished ranked in the top 10 for 3 straight seasons, averaging 11 wins per season. In the three seasons since then under Head Coach Bill Stewart, the Mountaineers finished ranked only once (22nd) and have lost two out of their last three bowl games despite facing middling ACC teams all three years.
Mountaineer fans found out that it's hard to handle the valleys when you've been so close to the mountaintop.
Sensing that the team was headed in the wrong direction, WVU Athletic Director Oliver Luck made the bold move to hire Dana Holgorsen to right the ship. And while the original plan was to allow Holgorsen a year to get the lay of the land as offensive coordinator, as a thin lad from England once said, "You can't always get what you want."
And so it is that the Mountaineers will take the field alongside Head Coach Dana Holgorsen on Sunday against the Marshall Thundering Herd, and so it is that we kick off the annual Wemustignitethiscouch.com WVU Football Season Preview by covering the side of the ball that has Mountaineer fans practically giddy with anticipation- the offense.
The traditional position-by-position preview of The Couch has been condensed into offensive and defensive previews this year, but the same level of hard-hitting, no access, smart-assed commentary will always remain absolutely free for you, the intelligent consumer of all things Mountaineer-related in the land of smoldering upholstery.
LET'S BRING ON THE MOUNTAINEERS!!!
Holgorsen takes over. Defenses take aspirin.
Holgorsen takes over a Mountaineer offense that in recent years has been described in multiple preseason preview articles with words like "stagnant", "middling", and "shitty". (Ok, so the last one was my own quote.)
WVU fans grew accustomed to dynamic offenses prior to Bill Stewart's reign, which was preceded by an average of 39.6 points per game in 2007. In the three years since, WVU has averaged 24.5 in 2008, 26.2 in 2009, and 25.2 last season. (Last season's total was good for No. 78 in the nation. Not exactly elite.)
Expect that to change.
New Head Coach Holgorsen's last three seasons as an offensive coordinator (at three separate schools) have resulted in scoring averages of 44.2, 42.2, and 40.6 points per game. And that was with personnel that probably wasn't as talented as the players he inherited in Morgantown.
For what it's worth, Holgorsen doesn't care as much about the Mountaineers' statistical dominance as he does about getting the win on a weekly basis.
"You guys all get caught up in who's leading the nation in offense, who's leading the nation in passing, who's leading the nation in points, but we don't talk about that," Holgorsen said in this article from the Charleston Daily Mail. "I haven't in three years."
He does allow though, in that same article, that "...if we're winning games, the chances are we're doing what we want to do on offense."
Holgorsen's system is a pass-first spread attack that has made stars out of the quarterbacks at his previous coaching gigs, Case Keenum at Houston and Brandon Weeden become one of the nation's most prolific QBs in 2010.
Let's take a closer look at his previous stops to get an idea of the results that this system has produced:
-Assistant coach/Offensive coordinator, Texas Tech- Holgorsen coaches an "Air Raid" offense under Mike Leach that led the nation in passing in 2005, was 3rd in 2006, and was 2nd in total offense in 2007.
-Offensive coordinator, Houston- Holgorsen leads an offense that finishes third in total offense in 2008, then first in 2009.
-Offensive coordinator, Oklahoma State- In his first season with a team generally considered to have little offensive talent returning and that finished 61st in total offense the year before, Holgorsen coaches an Oklahoma State offense that is first nationally in yards per game and third in scoring.
Sign me up for some of that.
Mountaineer QB Geno Smith indicated in this article from ESPN.com's Big East blog that learning Holgorsen's playbook wasn't much of a problem, as “Coach Holgorsen doesn’t have a playbook.” Smith went on to explain that the system is based on "playing fast" and that most of the Mountaineers' offensive players learned it through extensive film study.
So since we know this has worked before, let's take a look at the players that will be called upon to implement the new offensive scheme.
- Geno Smith
Junior Geno Smith returns as the starter for the Mountaineers at the QB position after putting together a pretty solid season passing the ball last year. Smith completed 64.8 percent of his throws for 2,763 yards, 24 TD's with only 7 INT's. Going into Sunday's season-opening showdown with Marshall, Mountaineer fans can recall with great satisfaction that Geno Smith was remarkable in the clutch against the Terds last season, leading the Mountaineers on 2 90+ yard touchdown drives while down 15 in the 4th quarter, culminating in a thrilling TD pass and 2 point conversion to tie the game with 12 seconds left on the clock, leading to an overtime victory that kept Bill Stewart's job for another few months.
Unfortunately, the coronation was subsequently put on hold after Mountaineer fans saw Smith wrapping up an overall horrible day by holding the ball in his hands in the closing seconds of a home loss to Syracuse without even getting a throw off.
So while Smith certainly showed he was a capable leader and has the potential for greatness, he also showed that he was a true sophomore going through some growing pains as the season went along.
Fast forward to this year, when Smith looks to step into the role of QB That Sees His Stock Skyrocket Under Dana Holgorsen's Offense.
Smith himself knows that there is pressure based upon the achievements of Coach Holgorsen's previous quarterbacks.
"I've been hearing about that, the stats and everything,'' Smith said in this article from the Charleston Gazette. "But I'm not one of those guys who really thrives on the individual aspects of the game. I'm all about winning. If we run the ball on every down, I'm good with it.
"I know [Holgorsen's] resume. He has a great resume. He's had a lot of guys who put up great numbers. And, yes, I don't want to be the guy who doesn't do it.''
Smith also realizes, however, that he brings strengths to the table for Holgorsen's offense that perhaps his previous quarterbacks didn't have.
“I think I help the offense more than the offense helps me,” he said in the previously-cited ESPN Big East Blog article. “The offense has been proven. I think I just give it a different dynamic because I’m able to do more things. I’m athletic, I can run around a little bit, I can extend plays and make the throws.”
Expect to see Geno in this posture quite a bit this season.
WVU lost depth behind Geno Smith when Barry Brunetti made the decision to transfer to Ole Miss in January and Brian Athey transferred to Illinois State in early fall camp. (Brunetti is now the starter for the Rebels.) Now if Geno Smith should miss any time, true freshmen Paul Millard is the only scholarship quarterback left on the roster.
Fortunately for the Mountaineers, Millard enrolled early and was available for spring drills. Milalrd shows a strong arm and promise, and had a strong spring season, even leading Coach Holgorsen to indicate- although he couldn't have actually been serious- that Geno Smith might not have an iron grip on the starting job.
If the unthinkable should happen and the Mountaineers should lose both Smith AND Millard, I suppose Coley White could step in. I say I suppose because I will most likely have jumped off a bridge by then.
WVU football has been a program of star running backs for the past decade. From Avon Colborne to Quincy Wilson to Steve Slaton to Noel Devine, Mountaineer fans have grown accustomed to a bellringer halfback as the star attraction.
But if you're looking for one guy to be THE star of the Mountaineers out of the backfield, it might take a few games to find him.
The Mountaineers feature a bevy of talented running backs both young and old, and at least in the early stages of the season, Coach Holgorsen is far less worried about determining who holds the starting job than most fans and the media seem to be.
"I think we're getting closer [to a concrete depth chart], but we don't care much about starters. You guys care about starters more than we do,'' Holgorsen said in this article from the Charleston Gazette. "And probably the players think about being a starter more than we do. But especially all the skill positions, those things just keep rotating. You're going to see a lot of guys who are going to rotate until they really establish themselves and until they really start having a good game.''
Case in point- the Mountaineers have three true freshmen running backs who will all see playing time in one order or another. Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison, and Vernard Roberts will all get opportunities to demonstrate their talents for WVU. And while they are all built similarly (170-190 pounds, 5'8'' or so) and have elite speed, they all feature a different, distinctive set of skills.
Buie is the most heralded of the three out of high school, and has demonstrated incredible quickness and speed out of the backfield.
Vernard Roberts was the only one of the three to enroll early, so he has the benefit of spring drills and is probably more mentally prepared to start the season than the others. Roberts looked good in the Blue/Gold game, and his style is more of a north/south style that will be a pleasing sight to Mountaineer fans that grew exasperated at times with Devine's dancing behind the line.
Dustin Garrison has an ability to make defenders miss that has impressed Coach Holgorsen. “Kendall Hunter last year was the best I've seen at that,” Holgorsen said in this ESPN Big East Blog post. “I’m not comparing Dustin to Kendall Hunter. I'm just saying it doesn't have to be blocked to get yards.”
Although the competition for playing time is fierce, the three freshmen have become great friends off the field.
“Dustin has been very beneficial to go through things with and Vernard, being here since January, has helped us prepare and not get caught off guard,” Buie said in this article from the Times WV. “We are all going through the same stage right now. We are competing with each, but at the same time we are still friends.”
Despite their youth, Coach Holgorsen indicates that they're ready to see the field and their playing time will be determined based upon who can handle the situation:
"The three true freshmen, based on them being true freshmen, we don't know how they're going to handle that situation,'' Holgorsen said in the previously-cited Charleston Gazette article. "What you do in practice is one thing. What you get when they're in an actual game situation will probably be better for one or two of them and then it probably won't be as good for one or two of them.''
"I can't name a starter, but I can tell you all three of those guys are going to play,'' Holgorsen said.
In addition to the three freshmen, Sophomore speedster Trey Johnson looks to get some time. Though he's demonstrated some problems holding onto the ball, Johnson is another speedy back that can lose defenders in a hurry.
Juniors Shawne Alston and Ryan Clarke are the leading returning running backs in terms of yardage and carries, but Alston has had a problem staying healthy and Clarke looks to fit into more of a fullback/h-back role in Holgorsen's offense. It wouldn't be surprising, however, to see Clarke in the backfield on short yardage downs considering his recent success in that role (8 TD runs a year ago.) Alston is probably the biggest and strongest of the tailbacks, and could see some time in between-the-tackles running situations.
Junior Matt Lindamood and senior Ricky Kovatch will also probably see some time in a fullback role this year. Sophomore Daquan Hargrett transferred earlier this fall so screw him.
So while the Mountaineers don't have a set star workhorse out of the backfield (at least at this point in the season), plenty of hungry, talented playmakers stand ready to keep it fresh and fast this season.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you folks are going to enjoy this.
WVU lost its leader in (bubble screen) receptions last year in Jock Sanders, but much like the running back corps, the wide receiver position features a host of athletic, speedy playmakers that will give Geno Smith plenty of options to choose from down the field.
Junior Tavon Austin is, in no uncertain terms, the most electrifying athlete in the Big East. (I know it's common to bitch about the national media's coverage of Mountaineer players, but while you do hear at least a nominal amount of praise for Geno Smith, Tavon Austin isn't getting NEARLY the attention he deserves as a truly amazing talent as a playmaker.) Austin caught 58 balls last year for 8 TD's, but should break out even more under Holgorsen.
Austin has the ability to take a bubble screen for a long score, go over the middle, or beat his man deep like no Mountaineer receiver since Reggie Rembert. His ability to make defenders miss in the open field is unparallelled in college football. (Yeah, I said it.)
Don't believe me? Ask the Maryland Terrapins:
Sophomore Stedman Bailey has also solidified a starting job as a dynamic downfield threat. Bailey had 24 catches and 4 TD's a year ago, but has really stepped up in the offseason and has earned the respect of both his coaches and his quarterback.
"Stedman Bailey has made tremendous progress and he's becoming one of the go-to guys on offense," Geno Smith said in this article from the Charleston Daily Mail.
Bailey is more of a true wideout than Austin, but the two should provide multiple threats out of every set.
"Stedman and Tavon have solidified the fact that they are pretty good and we will play them as much as possible," Holgorsen said to reporters last week as reported in this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
As for other possible contributors, Holgorsen goes on to state in that article that "We're developing our eight, but I want those second-team guys to beat out the first-team guys."
What Holgorsen means by this is that there are 4 starting wide receiver spots in his offense and four backups to those spots. While Bailey and Austin have their roles nailed down, the others are still open competitions and should feature the same sort of rotational approach as the running back position.
Redshirt junior Ryan Nehlen and sophomore Ivan McCartney are competing for the outside starting gig opposite Bailey, and the competition is neck and neck.
From the previously-cited Post-Gazette article, Holgorsen said, "Right about the time you think Ivan has the edge, then Ryan comes back and has his best day since he has been here," Holgorsen said.
Nehlen has outstanding hands while McCartney has excellent speed and size.
Senior Tyler Urban, used as a tight end in the past by the Mountaineers, will split time with redshirt senior Devon Brown in the other slot position. Urban, at 6'5'', provides a massive target across the middle of the field and has been impressive in offseason drills and scrimmages.
Junior J.D. Woods is another solid target that has shown flashes of potential, and should see playing time as well. And Mountaineer fans should be more than acquainted with the contributions of senior Brad Starks on the outside. Starks is this year's winner of the Reed Williams Award for Guy Who Feels Like He's Played For the Mountaineers For a Decade.
The offensive line took a major hit when senior Josh Jenkins was lost for the season to a knee injury that required surgery, but the unit has jelled surprisingly well even in his absence in the offseason.
Holgorsen brought in Bill Bedenbaugh to be his offensive line coach, and Coach Bedenbaugh explained his system in this article from wvillustrated.com:
“It’s really all zone concepts in the run game,” Bedenbaugh said. “We have one-man concept, but we’re giving the ball to different guys out of different formations but the line is blocking the same play.”
Senior Donny Barclay is the Mountaineers' best lineman and will start at left tackle for the third year in a row. He and junior Jeff Braun both missed spring drills following offseason shoulder surgeries, but both have worked hard to rehabilitate themselves to be ready for the upcoming season.
“It took a lot of hard work and dedication to get where I am now,” Barclay said in the previously-cited wvillustrated article. “It’s my senior year and this will be my fifth year coming up. I’m trying to end on a good note. I’ve had to work pretty hard to get to this point.”
Braun will take over Jenkins' vacated left guard position after starting at right tackle a season ago. He's picked up the nuances of a new position nicely, but it wasn't without work. "The hardest adjustment for me was going from a right-side to a left-side standpoint, just because it's kind of like learning how to write with your left hand," Braun said in this article from the Daily Athenaeum. "You have to switch things in your mind and be able to go off a certain foot."
Braun's switch led to the most hotly contested position battle on the line at right tackle. Redshirt freshman Quinton Spain and sophomore Pat Eger got additional reps in the spring due to injuries to Jenkins, Barclay, and Braun, and both are deserving of the starting spot. Spain, a High School Army All-American, is a 6’5 340-pound monster with surprising quickness and athleticism. While he's still green, it's not unusual to hear folks use the words "future NFL player" when talking about his potential.
Right tackle and sometimes aircraft carrier Quinton Spain provides tantalizing potential on the offensive line.
At right guard, senior Tyler Rader steps in after earning a scholarship for himself in the offseason. Radar certainly has a big fan in his offensive line coach, as demonstrated by these comments from the previously-cited wvillustrated.com article:
“Tyler Rader is a guy that makes you want to coach,” Bedenbaugh said. “He is a typical example of why you get into coaching. He loves to play football, he knows exactly what he’s doing, he’s smart, he plays hard and he has fun out on the field.”
The center position sees a familiar face in redshirt junior Joe Madsen. Madsen was named to the watchlist for the Rimmington Trophy given to the nation's best center for the second year in a row, and he's earned praise from Holgorsen as "as good a center as I've been around".
Redshirt freshman John Bassler will back Madsen up, and Jeff Braun has also taken snaps at the center position just in case he might be called upon during the course of the season.
So despite losing a star in Jenkins to an injury before the season began, both Coach Holgorsen and Coach Bedenbaugh seem to think that the starters along the line will be a strength of the team this year. Or in the words of Coach Bedenbaugh from the previously-cited wvillustrated.com article:
“I love every one of the guys we have,” Bedenbaugh said. “I don’t have an issue with any one of them and the reason is they want to be great. They play hard, they go out there and listen because they want to be great. It’s fun to coach guys that want to be great.”
While it's tough to lay such great expectations on a first-year head coach on the offensive side of the ball, Holgorsen's track record is that his teams get off to a running start... and they don't stop running. While Mountaineer fans might have unrealistically high expectations, Holgorsen was brought in with the specific intent of putting points back on the scoreboard at Mountaineer Field.
And for the first time in a long time, that gives Mountaineer fans real hope.
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