You can count Jake Spavital among the believers. West Virginia’s second-year quarterbacks coach says Geno Smith is actually better than he was a year ago. So, exactly how do you improve on 4,300 yards passing, 31 touchdowns and only seven interceptions?
"His footwork is getting quicker, his release is getting quicker and that's just a part of repetition,” he said. “You do it so many times and it becomes muscle memory and now he's trying to improve off of that muscle memory. The more he reps the better he's going to get."
Perhaps even more important than his improving physical skills is his growing knowledge of the game ... and then the transferring of that knowledge to his teammates.
"His leadership is unbelievable and it's to the point now that when he gets in that huddle everyone is looking at him and everyone knows that they're comfortable and he's fine and they're going to make the play," Spavital said.
Smith has left no stone unturned in becoming one of the top quarterbacks in college football. His insistence on studying video tape borders on compulsion.
"I can't get him out of (the film room),” Spavital laughed. “There are some times when I just have to tell him to leave ... 'just go home and go watch a movie or something.' Right now (Thursday night), he's probably in this building somewhere watching his tape of practice today and critiquing himself."
Smith’s understanding of the game is light years beyond where it was just three years ago when he was thrown to the wolves against Marshall when Jarrett Brown was sidelined with a concussion, and then in the Gator Bowl against Florida State when Brown went down once again.
And, it’s dramatically different than it was just a year ago at this time when he was starting to learn Dana Holgorsen’s new offense. Today, Smith is seeing things out there well beyond his own responsibilities.
Again, Spavital explains.
"Now it's to the point where you can start talking schematics more than 'on this I need you to do a one-and-a-half-step drop or a drop step’ ... he knows how to do that so that eliminates a lot of just talking with him,” Spavital said. “You can get down to just how to attack defenses and the leadership role that he needs to take on rather than just operating the offense."
At one point during Thursday’s practice, Smith saw the safety robbing a certain part of the field and immediately altered what he planned to do to take advantage of the hole that was created. When that happens, really good players can take over football games.
"There were times (Thursday) when the safeties were over-playing and Geno looked at me and said 'can I do this?' I said 'you're playing the game. Do it!' So he goes out there the next time and it's a great play,” Spavital said. “That's the point where you need to get. He's learning how to attack defenses and he's starting to play the mind games with the defense and he's doing a great job."
However, Spavital cautions that there is some downside to all of this new-found knowledge Smith is acquiring. Too much information is not always a good thing; sometimes it’s better to just be a football player.
"We do that with our game plan,” Spavital explained. “(Geno) will sit there and watch as much tape of his opponents as he possibly can and try and find little tendencies for them, but our game plan is just real simple all of the time because we don't want them to over think - we just want them to play fast."
From the looks of things, the Mountaineer offense is operating at warp speed right now.
- Before each practice, all of the quarterbacks go through a serious of stretching exercises, contortions and movements unlike anything I had ever seen before. Also, ice bags seem to be a permanent part of their wardrobe afterward. Spavital says it’s necessary to do this because of the amount of throws they are required to make during a practice.
“We throw a lot of balls out there, especially with Paul (Millard),” he said. “Ford (Childress), being a young quarterback, hasn't done as much and he was hurting pretty bad after the first two weeks and that's why we do the spring break in between just to take the taxing off their arms. They ice every day and they come in and do rotator cuff workouts just to keep them healthy."
- Although Spavital does not coach the wide receivers, he does interact with them quite frequently and he is very impressed with how well they are communicating with the quarterbacks. Plus, a lot of that communication is now non-verbal.
"They were doing signals (Thursday) that I had no idea what they were calling,” he said. “I had a sense of what they were doing, but they somehow made it work and once you get to that level that's where you need to be at.
“They are doing things out there that they weren't even thinking about doing last year and it just keeps evolving,” he added. “They are constantly communicating with each other off on the sidelines and when they get out there they know what to expect."
- You may have noticed that West Virginia has three scholarship quarterbacks on its roster spaced out in different classes: Smith is a senior, Millard is a sophomore and Childress is a freshman. Spavital says that is by design.
"We always bring in one a year,” he said. “That was from Coach Holgorsen and it makes complete sense because normally if you bring two quarterbacks in the same class, one beats out the other and the other one transfers and you're back to square one. We focus on one kid and bring him in and hope we can continue on with everything else."
If you recall, that is exactly what happened at West Virginia when Barry Brunetti and Jeremy Johnson were recruited in the same class a couple of years ago (both of them actually ended up leaving).
A few years from now after a couple more recruiting cycles, Spavital believes West Virginia should be in good shape with quarterback depth if everything goes well.
"We'll get there,” Spavital said. “In the next two we will have four scholarship quarterbacks and we will normally have two walk-ons that we bring in as well."
- It’s hard to ignore a playmaker like Tavon Austin, especially when the guys you coach directly benefit from his ability to turn short gainers into touchdowns. Spavital marvels at how quickly Austin has transformed himself into one of the premier playmaking wide receivers in the country. Remember, just two years ago the plan was for Austin to replace Noel Devine and continue West Virginia’s tradition of great tailbacks.
"He's that natural,” said Spavital of Austin’s switch to wide receiver. “We're telling him to play fast all the time but he's unbelievable at slowing it down and speeding it up real quickly and throwing everyone off guard. That stuff you can't handcuff him on. You've just got to let him play football."
Austin, just like Geno Smith, is also beginning to understand how teams are defending him.
"He is seeing every look imaginable. He's seeing it and communicating it,” Spavital said. “He understands how defenses work, how they operate and what they're trying to do and the reasoning why defenses are doing this to him is because ... And he understands that he's taking people out of the play for us to have success. He's going to keep evolving as he sees more things."
- During a conversation I had with Jeff Hostetler the other day on another topic, the former WVU and pro football great brought up something that caught my attention. Hoss said he is getting tired of hearing coaches around the country say they need to have the players that can fit into their system before they have success. Hostetler believes good coaching entails taking the players you have, teaching them how to play, and then encouraging them to give great effort.
Isn’t that exactly what Dana Holgorsen did with last year’s team?
"Football is never going to change,” Spavital said. “Schematically, everyone knows how to do it; it is how you teach it and how you operate the game. We run the same plays that teams have run here for the past 10 years - we are probably a little more spread and we throw the ball around because that's just our philosophy, but our plays are in probably every playbook across the country."