By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
May 11, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For really the first time since he became West Virginia's offensive coordinator in 2008, Jeff Mullen has finally got several players well-versed in his way of doing things.
Of those expected to be on the offensive two-deep this fall, 15 players have at least a year of playing experience in Mullen's system including 10 with two year's worth of experience (that does not include Geno Smith, who took about 200 snaps last year as Jarrett Brown's backup QB). One of those two-year veterans is junior wide receiver Brad Starks, who admits the learning curve for Mullen's offense can be pretty steep for some players.
"It's been three years since Coach Mullen has been here and I think each year everybody is getting more comfortable," Starks said. "The players that have been here, it's becoming a routine for them - not just knowing the offense - but knowing where to be when he calls certain plays."
Mullen wants his players to understand the complete picture so they can think for themselves on the field. Sometimes that has worked well, other times not so well.
"We have a system in place with every normal down and distance call that we have the opportunity to attack every part of the field," Mullen said earlier this spring. "Some of the balls that should have been handed to Noel (Devine) were thrown to the bubble or pulled by the quarterback.
"We're basically a triple option football team in theory, and so a lot of Noel's lack of touches or bubble screens … those are based upon the defense and what they are doing to us," Mullen said.
Some criticized Mullen for only giving Devine the football five times in the second half of last year's Gator Bowl loss to Florida State after he ran for 127 yards in the first half to help the Mountaineers to a 14-13 lead. Compared to Pitt's Dion Lewis, Devine's 249 total touches last year were about 100 fewer than what Lewis got despite the two players having similar builds.
The trick is for Mullen to find a balance between getting enough touches for his best playmaker without overusing him. Some of that comes from the plays Mullen calls and some of that comes from the reads his quarterbacks make.
"Getting more people involved means you can't just key on one guy," Starks pointed out.
"Every time you see a check-down throw, you may not have seen the guy that he was supposed to throw to wide open and those are things that (fans) miss," Mullen explained. "You say, 'Why didn't he give the ball to Noel or why didn't he throw it to the bubble who got tackled for minus two?'
"You think it's a bubble thrown for minus two and it's really all those things that you really don't see that turn a ballgame," Mullen said. "It may give you an extra first down or two or you get into field goal range for an extra three points."
Because so much rests on the shoulders of the quarterback, it is imperative for him to totally understand what he's seeing on the field. As terrific as Pat White was Starks says it wasn't until the final game of his WVU career in the Meineke Bowl that White took full advantage of Mullen's spread-the-wealth system. Of White's three touchdown passes that afternoon against North Carolina, two were second options when he correctly read what the defense was giving him.
"It was just an overall mixture of everybody getting into it and everybody touching it to keep the defense off balance," Starks said.
For the younger players such as wide receiver Stedman Bailey, knowing your playbook is imperative to getting on the field. In some instances that may actually supersede talent.
"Throughout the whole spring it's been a learning experience," Bailey admitted. "My whole thing was getting the plays down and I've pretty much learned everything. Now I can let my talent take over."
That also appeared to be the case at the beginning of last year with first-year starting quarterback Jarrett Brown and the team's inexperienced offensive line. West Virginia's offense progressed nicely until Brown had the four-interception game at Auburn followed later by a concussion against Marshall. Those two events really shook Brown's confidence. Sensing this, defenses relentlessly blitzed the Mountaineers to disrupt their timing.
After averaging 465.3 yards through its first four games West Virginia averaged 338.4 yards for the remaining nine games of the season. The one area Mullen wants to see improvement is the amount of passes his quarterbacks complete. He believes the completion percentage needs to be somewhere in the high 60s for the offense to function properly.
"In the throw game, I'm disappointed in our completion percentage and a lot of that has to do with quarterback timing, quarterback reads and quarterback play in general," he said.
"That is not a knock in any way on Patrick White or Jarrett Brown as much as it is a situation where a kid has got to grow in the system. It's very difficult to be one and done with new terms three straight years. Those are not excuses; that is the reality."
Mullen is in a similar boat with sophomores Geno Smith and Coley White and with incoming freshmen Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson. But with Smith and White he's at least got two young guys who are willing to work hard and learn.
All of the players say Smith is a film rat who frequently takes cutups home to watch at night.
"A lot of times we will sit and talk about the little things that are going on on the field and try to create a little connection there," said Geno's roommate Stedman Bailey.
Smith probably has the best combination of arm strength and touch of any WVU quarterback since Marc Bulger. There have been times this spring when Geno has looked like Peyton Manning throwing the football in pass skeleton, but of course the question for Smith will be his health and how his healing left foot responds to a 12-game regular season.
As for White, no player in recent memory has improved as much as Coley White has. Anyone who watched White two-hop bubble screens as a freshman would be astonished to see how far he has come as a passer in just two years under Mullen. Some of that is certainly the hard work White has put in, but a lot of that can be attributed to the time Mullen has spent working on Coley's throwing mechanics and footwork.
White has now grown to the point where the rest of his teammates have confidence that he can run the offense should something happen to Geno.
"Before we were thinking that maybe he wasn't the quarterback and maybe he should be a receiver because he's got the legs of Pat," said Devine. "But he's come a long way and he's going to continue to improve. Geno motivates him and whatever happens, happens."
Added Mullen, "Every time you see a winning football team they've got a good quarterback. It's 100 percent at every level, from pee wee to pro."
Mullen is hoping that will also be the case this fall for the Mountaineers.
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