• By Jed Drenning
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  • August 05, 2011 08:17 AM
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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. You can also follow Jed on Twitter: @TheSignalCaller

West Virginia reports for camp today, ushering in Dana Holgorsen’s 19th season as a college football coach – but his very first in the captain’s seat. Another significant first Holgorsen hopes to rope in by season’s end is his inaugural conference title at the major college level.

To achieve that goal, there are a few substantial challenges the Mountaineer coaching staff will be looking to overcome. None of those will be more instrumental in WVU’s success than protecting quarterback Geno Smith. This could prove to be the single-most pivotal issue dictating West Virginia’s fortunes. Master this challenge and Mountaineer fans could be watching Geno strut to New York in mid-December as a Heisman finalist and a Big East champ. Struggle with it and 2011 could deflate into a season fraught with missed opportunities.

The buzz surrounding Smith heading into 2011 began almost immediately after Holgorsen was hired last December. Considering Holgorsen’s track record, it was hard not to get caught up in the optimism. At Houston, he took Case Keenum, a rough-around-the-edges 2,000-yard passer, and transformed him into a 5,000-yard dynamo. Last year in Stillwater, Holgorsen inherited Brandon Weeden, an unproven junior who hadn’t started a game since high school in 2001. Thirteen games later, Weeden had thrown for over 4,000 yards en route to becoming Oklahoma State’s first all-league quarterback selection in more than 70 years.

Upon the news of Holgorsen’s hire, the Mountain State was brimming with anticipation. If he could create such offensive magic with serviceable spare parts at previous coaching stops then surely the sky would be the limit when he was handed a polished veteran like Geno Smith. The possibilities of an ultra-innovative, wily play caller with a strong-armed, razor-sharp film rat at his disposal seemed boundless. It had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood script that could almost write itself.

But cast as the black-hatted villain in such a script would be the dark menace known as pass protection issues.

Nothing could derail West Virginia’s BCS dreams faster than Smith landing in harm’s way. Nine of the 12 defenses the Mountaineers will face this year finished in the top half of the country in sacks in 2010, including three in the top 20. Protecting the quarterback is essential in any system, but for Holgorsen – who averaged 50 throws per game in his six years as a coordinator (49.94 to be exact) – it’s an absolute must. If WVU hopes to push for a Big East crown, Geno Smith better be guarded like the Hope Diamond.

The safekeeping of a team’s QBs is always a concern, but the needle on the apprehension meter slides even further when you consider the circumstances in Morgantown this year. The Mountaineers have just two scholarship quarterbacks populating their camp roster (including a true freshman) and those quarterbacks will be playing behind an offensive line that’s been known for its limitations in recent years.

Injuries and inexperience combined to create an anxious offseason in the trenches for West Virginia. Two critical pieces of O-line coach Bill Bedenabaugh’s front wall were absent from spring ball as Jeff Braun and second team all-conference tackle Donnie Barclay nursed injuries, missing valuable reps in a new system. Braun figures to shift from tackle to guard as a replacement for Josh Jenkins, who himself is out for the season with an MCL injury suffered in the spring game. Meanwhile, redshirt freshman Quinton Spain is projected as a starter at right tackle. Spain is an untried commodity with considerable upside, and opposing coaches will test his mettle early and often. Giving Spain some help schematically until he gets his sea legs under him could be a priority. Former walk-on Tyler Rader is the odds-on favorite to be penciled in at right guard next to returning starter Joe Madsen at center. This motley band of brothers will be tasked with the most crucial security detail on the West Virginia football team this year.

Placing a premium on quarterback protection is certainly nothing new to this offensive system. The genesis of Holgorsen’s incarnation of the ‘Air raid’ of course traces back to the LaVell Edwards era at Brigham Young. It was a time in the early 80s when the Jim McMahons and Robbie Boscos of the world were torching the college landscape with a downfield passing attack like no one had ever seen. The foundation behind Edwards’ high flying aerial circus was a fundamentally sound approach to pass protection that was built on four basic cornerstones. These ‘rules’ were preached regularly to the Cougar O-line and referred to by Edwards and BYU offensive coordinator Roger French as the “four nevers.” 1.) Never go forward; 2.) Never cross your feet; 3.) Never drop your head; and 4.) Never get beaten inside.

Some things have changed within the framework of this offense in the quarter century that’s passed since Brigham Young’s high water mark – a national championship in 1984. But one thing that’s held constant is a core belief in keeping the quarterback upright. Holgorsen simply achieves that end by slightly different means these days.

“The quick game is something we’ve really focused a lot more on to help protect the quarterback,” said Holgorsen, alluding to the growing number of 3-step packages and perimeter screens his offense has showcased in recent years. “You have to do things to help (the quarterback) get the ball out faster. We don’t want him to get caught with the football.”

West Virginia inside receivers coach Shannon Dawson agrees.

“We used to be an offense that was very heavy on deep vertical routes and things downfield, maybe even 65-70 percent of the time,” Dawson pointed out. “We still attack down the field, but not nearly as often because we’ve added a lot of lateral screens and quicker stuff to ease the burden on the O-line.”

The good news is that the numbers suggest when Holgorsen’s staff speaks about the importance of solid pass protection, they mean it.

What numbers, you ask?

(Here’s a caveat for the statistically intolerant crowd reading this: You might want to pop a Dramamine to fend off the motion sickness you’ll soon experience because I’m about to go medieval with some figures.)

A year ago, West Virginia’s offense threw the football 382 times and allowed 27 sacks. Reduce those numbers down and that translates into an attempt-to-sack ratio of 14-to-1. Put another way, WVU quarterbacks were sacked on average one time for every 14 passes they attempted last season. Using that ratio as a frame of reference, consider that Holgorsen’s 2010 Oklahoma State offense yielded one sack every 53 times they threw a pass (53-to-1), marking the most passer-safe ratio in all of college football last season. It’s also worth noting that in 2009, Holgorsen’s Houston offense was nearly as efficient, allowing one sack every 42 throws.

Let’s widen the scope and look at the numbers attached to a few other members of West Virginia’s offensive staff. Two years ago at Arizona, Bill Benenbaugh coached a Wildcats’ offensive line that finished 10th nationally in sack avoidance and along the way yielded one sack per 37 passes thrown.

Want more?

As the offensive coordinator at Stephen F. Austin, Shannon Dawson superintended an attack that twice led the Football Championship Subdivision in passing while allowing just one sack for every 60 pass attempts in 2009 (60-to-1), and one per 46 attempts in 2010.

In other words, across the board Holgorsen has assembled a staff that is steeped in the business of protecting the passer. It’s a philosophy that’s in their DNA. This crew knows how to provide a signal caller with the China Doll treatment. Whether that means instilling in a QB the wisdom of quick-answer throws, pocket awareness, or teaching the O-line the brass tacks of watertight pass protection, these guys have it covered.

See you at the Fifty.


Geno Smith, Dana Holgorsen, West Virginia University Mountaineers