A Spring of Change

  • By Jed Drenning
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  • March 31, 2011 02:58 PM
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MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s web site http://thesignalcaller.com.

Spring, as they say, is a time for change.

The West Virginia football program has taken that up a few notches. Quite a few calendars have been turned since the last time that adage rang quite so true at Mountaineer Field this time of year.

A new-look WVU offense is being installed by a new coordinator and a new cadre of offensive assistants. Moreover, this offense is expected to be a radical departure – both by design and effect - from anything Mountaineer fans have seen before. Couple that with a West Virginia defensive staff that is tasked with replacing seven starters from last year’s imposing unit, and it’s easy to understand why the word ‘change’ keeps surfacing this spring.

Change can be good, or it can be … not so good. But one thing is for certain: it’s inescapable.

West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel embraces change as part of the game, particularly at the collegiate level.

“College football obviously isn’t like the NFL where you have a chance to keep your core group of guys together for several years,” said Casteel.

“If it was that way I’d probably be calling (Grant) Wiley into my office about now to tell him that he’s losing a step and we might have to make a move,” added Casteel with a chuckle, alluding to the former all-Big East linebacker who last played for West Virginia in 2003. “It would be great if it was like that but it’s not. These guys aren’t around here for very long. The time goes by fast and before you know it you’re starting over again with a new group.”

Casteel points out that West Virginia has survived this natural cycle before and he believes they can do so again.

“It’s a lot like the situation we faced coming out of the Fiesta Bowl. That next year we had to replace all those guys that had been together for a long time,” Casteel said. “That’s always going to be part of what you have to do. We figured it out and we made it work.”

Made it work they did, indeed. With a fresh batch of untested talent in 2008, Casteel and company assembled a West Virginia unit that finished No. 11 nationally in scoring defense and which, at one point, put together an amazing string of 72 opponents’ possessions in which they yielded just five touchdowns.

Many of the fresh faces on that 2008 defense matured into the nucleus of last year’s dominating unit and, as the cycle repeats itself, they too are now gone. What new standouts will emerge? Who will assume the mantle as this unit’s new leader? Whatever 2011 does have in store for the West Virginia defense there’s a good chance fans will get at least a taste of it this spring.

Speaking of getting a taste of things, my guess is Mountaineer quarterback Geno Smith will like what’s hitting his palate this spring.

There are many reasons I’m convinced of this, but let me start with a short anecdote.

I had my first encounter this week with new WVU assistant coach Shannon Dawson, a long time disciple of the Dana Holgorsen system. During that short get-together we talked a little Xs and Os. The conversation was brief, lasting no more than five or 10 minutes, but during that time there was one thing I do recall Dawson pointing out with subtle pride. As the OC at Stephen F. Austin State, Dawson coached a quarterback who once threw the ball almost 90 times in a single game to help the Lumberjacks overcome a 17-point deficit and force overtime.

After the discussion with Dawson, I couldn’t resist later that afternoon pulling the online box score from the game he had mentioned and giving it a look-see. The game took place in 2008 and the SFASU quarterback Dawson coached was named Jeremy Moses, a sophomore at the time. Moses’ stat line reads like a lottery ticket: 57-85-501.


Those numbers are music to any QB’s ears.

Coach Dawson made a number of comments during our short dialogue, but the part that resonated with me most was about throwing the ball about 90 times in a game. Maybe that’s because that remark seemed representative of the entire mindset this new Mountaineer offensive staff brings to bear at every turn.

Attack. And attack. Then, attack some more.

When you glance at the numbers posted by passers in Dana Holgorsen’s system over the course of his six years as an offensive coordinator (and co-coordinator) the production is staggering. Twenty times during that span Holgorsen has had a quarterback throw five or more TDs in a game. Four times he has had a QB toss six TDs. Three times his offense has produced a 5,000-yard passer.

Graham Harrell flourished in this system at Texas Tech, once throwing for 646 yards in a single game. Case Keenum twice led the nation in total offense while playing in Holgorsen’s offense in Houston. Most recently, Brandon Weeden – a 27-year-old minor league baseball castoff who had thrown just 27 college passes prior to playing in Holgorsen’s system at Oklahoma State last year – threw for nearly 4,300 yards and led the Big 12 in passing efficiency while guiding the Cowboys to the first 11-win season in school history.

What do those players have that Geno Smith doesn’t? Nothing. In fact, with more than 3,000 passing yards and 25 career TD tosses on his resume, Smith is one of the most accomplished passers that Holgorsen has ever inherited. Don’t be surprised if that experience, along with Geno’s tenacious film study habits and willingness to put in the time, help catapult him ahead of the curve.

With that in mind, here are five questions to consider this spring:

1) Can West Virginia’s rebuilt defense keep up the pace? First, what unseen characters might emerge from the ranks to make an impact – particularly in the secondary? Second, can Bruce Irvin progress beyond his 2010 role as a pass rush specialist? Last year Irvin was a full-time factor but a part-time player. This season Irvin’s role will be expanded and the grass roots of that effort will be seen in the spring.

2) How quickly can Geno Smith assimilate into Dana Holgorsen’s offense? (See above). My guess is Smith will do so faster than some might think. Spring drills could unveil the first signs of what I fully anticipate to be a breakout season for Geno.

3) Who will emerge as Smith’s back up? The Mountaineers haven’t enjoyed genuine depth at the quarterback position since Jarrett Brown last played behind Pat White in 2008. Last spring, in a move stitched of necessity, Coley White took every snap under center for West Virginia before ultimately joining the receiving corps in August. This year the battle for the No. 2 spot will be waged by Brian Athey and Paul Millard, a pair of early enrollees coming off decorated high school careers. Both will be hoping to compensate with potential what they lack in experience.

4) How quickly can new O-Line coach Bill Bedenbaugh get West Virginia’s offensive line to develop a chip on its collective shoulder? With two of last year’s starters out because of injury (Don Barclay and Jeff Braun), Bedenbaugh will spend the spring getting a feel for the remainder of the personnel he’s inherited while trying to scope out a full starting five. This is probably the best place to point out the biggest misconception about Holgorsen’s scheme - the fallacy that it’s a pass-happy attack that entirely neglects the running game. That false impression, often fueled by media types like myself (How many 5,000-yard passers was that again?), does a disservice to a system that last year produced a 1,500-yard rusher in Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter and in 2008 helped Houston’s Bryce Beall churn out 1,247 yards. For that matter, even in the pass-happy effort Coach Dawson mentioned to me (see above) his Stephen F. Austin offense – between those 85 throws – still managed to rack up 126 yards rushing. All things considered, the type of production that Holgorsen’s system has demonstrated in the ground game isn’t realized without an offensive line that has a nasty streak in it. That’s exactly what Bedenbaugh is bent on finding – or forming – this spring.

And finally…

5) Who will materialize as the go-to playmaker in the new scheme? Holgorsen’s offense has done a lot of things for a lot of skill players through the years, particularly those residing at the receiver position/s. The beneficiaries have come in all shapes and sizes. During his tenure as inside receivers coach at Texas Tech, Holgorsen groomed shifty 5-foot-9 slot receiver Wes Welker (now of New England Patriots’ fame) to a 97-catch season in 2003. As the co-offensive coordinator at Tech in 2007, Holgorsen coached the physically formidable (6-1, 215 lbs) Michael Crabtree to a 134-reception season. That total put Crabtree, a future first round NFL draft pick, atop the national standings in catches. Last season in Stillwater, Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon entered the year with 20 career catches. When 2010 drew to a close, Blackmon had blistered the Big 12 Conference with 111 grabs for an eye-popping 1,782 yards and 20 touchdowns. Those are the opportunities the Holgorsen system can present to receivers. The question is: who among the Mountaineers’ returning corps of pass catchers will seize that opportunity and ride it to stardom? The obvious first choice is Tavon Austin. Through two seasons in Morgantown Austin has been pure energy on the football field, constantly emitting that ‘lightning-in-a-bottle’ feel. Throw in a tape of Oklahoma State’s Alamo Bowl win over Arizona from last December and it’s easy to reach into your mind’s eye and replace Justin Blackmon’s white and orange No. 81 jersey streaking through the befuddled defense with an old gold and blue No. 1. That’s the kind of playmaking potential you can envision Tavon Austin realizing in this system – but he’s not alone. With the likes of Bradley Starks, Stedman Bailey, J.D. Woods and Ivan McCartney back in the fold this spring, the race to the top of the playmaking heap could be an interesting one to watch as West Virginia’s receivers work toward mastering the ins and outs of the new system.

Throw all these things into a pot and stir briskly and you get one of the most intriguing and highly anticipated WVU spring games in recent memory.

At 7 p.m. on the final Friday night in April at Mountaineer Field some of these questions might be answered.

And who knows, maybe even Grant Wiley will be there.

See you at the fifty.


The Signal Caller, Jed Drenning, WVU football