MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The formations are different, the personnel is different, even the style of play is different, but when you watch Dana Holgorsen’s offense in action for some reason it just looks Rich Rodriguez-esque.
Maybe it’s the pace with which the plays are going in in rapid-fire succession, or the universal familiarity of the system among his offensive assistant coaches, or Holgorsen’s willingness to get the ball out into open space to his playmakers - or even its relative simplicity (Rodriguez used a small number of plays from a bunch of different formations, too) - whatever it is, it just looks very familiar.
Not much can be deduced from three football practices in shorts and helmets, but one thing is quite clear, Holgorsen’s offense is going to dictate the tempo and pace of football games – much like Rodriguez’s best offenses did at West Virginia.
“The thing that makes it difficult is they get the ball out to kids in space right now and give them an opportunity to make a play,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel, who spent seven years defending Rodriguez’s high-speed spread offense on a daily basis.
When Rodriguez was here you could hear the practices from the parking lot, the coach never shy about correcting a mistake the moment he saw one and then quickly moving on to the next play. Holgorsen simply moves on to the next play, waiting until later to point out their errors during video tape study. He’s too busy being busy.
“We’re not going to get mad if they’re making mistakes,” Holgorsen said after Saturday’s practice. “We’re going to get mad if effort is bad or they’re not paying attention; if they’ve got a little bit of a lazy streak or they’re not playing smart. As the spring goes on, and if we continue to make the same mistakes, that’s when you will see me get pretty angry.”
“Coach Holgorsen is a laid-back guy; he’s very cool,” said quarterback Geno Smith. “He wants us to do our best at everything we do. He isn’t a guy who forces us to come in and watch a lot of film or makes things mandatory, but when it’s time for us to meet and it’s time for us to step on the field, he wants our full attention and that’s what we give him.”
Holgorsen says coaches are constantly fighting a losing battle against the clock.
“You’ve only got so much time with these guys and the best way to take advantage of that is to actually play football,” he explained. “You just take a big pile of film and evaluate it over the course of the next six months heading into camp.”
The really good ones seem to have the ability to play the game out in their minds in slow motion, anticipating what the other team is going to do ahead of time and then responding with something different. Some do it with meticulous planning while others just seem to be clairvoyant on the football field.
Bobby Bowden used to grease board an entire football game the night before with his offensive coordinator, going over every conceivable scenario that could come up with possible solutions to each. Rodriguez was a great planner, too, but he also had an uncanny ability of being able to figure out what the guy across the field was going to do and then having an answer for it, much like Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly. People in the business call it coaching on your feet.
In the short amount of time we have been able to observe Holgorsen in practice, you can already see his brain working like a high-speed processor on the sideline. Eventually, Holgorsen says his players will be the same way on the field.
“One thing this offense allows you to do is develop kids,” he said. “This is the beginning product, and I think the talent here is fine, but the way guys develop is going to be what’s most important to me.”
And that’s why he will tolerate some blank stares from his quarterbacks right now as he keeps sending in one signal after another.
“They stare a hole through me at times and that’s because they don’t get it and that’s what they’re supposed to do,” Holgorsen said. “If they get it they turn and if they don’t get it they stare at me. That bothers me at times. I get aggravated and tell them to hurry up and tell them to go. I’m doing that on purpose.”
Holgorsen is looking for a lot more than just physical attributes when he sizes up a football player. For instance, he says arm strength is way down on his list of the things he looks for in a quarterback.
“Things like intelligence, football knowledge, work ethic in the classroom and work ethic in the film room; feet, quick release, having the ability to work the pocket – all that stuff is more important than true arm strength,” he said.
Despite sometimes stumbling through the fog, the quarterbacks say they are having a blast so far playing in Holgorsen’s system.
“I really love the way we’ve been practicing,” said Smith. “There is a lot of competition between us and the defense and I feel like it’s only going to make us better.”
In the past Holgorsen’s offenses have put up huge numbers in the passing game, but Smith says there is a growing misconception that Holgorsen is always a pass-first, run-second coach.
“If the defense wants us to run the ball, then I’m pretty sure Coach Holgorsen will put us in the best position,” Smith said.
Casteel said the pressure is constantly on the defense to be lined up correctly (and quickly) when Holgorsen is calling plays. Sooner or later it becomes a losing proposition for defenses because the law of averages will eventually catch up to it.
“Once they get into a situation where they are controlling down and distance you better find a way to get off the field because you have to play eight, 10, 11 snaps that quick and that’s where they are going to start gaining the advantage because that’s when the kids are going to start making mistakes on defense,” Casteel admitted.
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