Dog Days of Summer
Radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning is providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for WVUsports.com. Be sure to order a copy of Jed’s 2013 Big 12 preview magazine, available here: http://bit.ly/lNmvO0. For more from Jed, you can follow him on Twitter @TheSignalCaller
On Tuesday, WVUsports.com’s John Antonik (@JohnAntonik) retweeted the link to an interesting story about college football fans during the offseason.
The piece, written by Chip Patterson over at CBSsports.com, referenced a study by Emory Sports Marketing Analytics regarding the offseason behavior of fans on Twitter. In effect, it’s a new-age twist on gauging how football-crazed each state is, or isn’t.
To no one’s surprise around these parts, the study - which ranked states by the percentage of all Twitter conversations in that state mentioning college football - placed West Virginia in the top 5.
It was nice to discover I’m not alone in suffering through the WVU offseason. My hunger for the gridiron always seems to reach a critical mass sometime shortly after the final Fourth of July sparkler fizzles out. The football-starved months between April and August can often feel like the longest stretch in sports.
That being said, the Dog Days of Summer at least this year haven’t been as dogged as normal in West Virginia. We’ve enjoyed our fair share of distractions – both on the diamond and on the events calendar.
Randy Mazey’s Mountaineer baseball team was the surprise of the Big 12 Conference, captivating Mountaineer fans all the way into late May. In the majors, the Pirates and the Reds have spent the first half giving St. Louis all it can handle in the National League Central, providing a summer diversion for West Virginians on both ends of the state.
There’s been plenty for the history buffs to chew on, too. Three weeks ago, many watched the festivities unfold in Charleston honoring the Mountain State’s 150th birthday, replete with a speech by the governor and a really cool three-dimensional film projected directly onto the face of the Capitol Building.
But with Independence Day cookouts now in the rear view and the calendar creeping closer each day to month number 8, all the Sesquicentennial Ceremonies, Pedro Alvarez hot streaks and Homer Bailey no-hitters in the world can’t prevent our attention from shifting to the same thing it does around this time every year: The smell of West Virginia football is again in the air.
Single-game ticket sales kicked off in full force earlier this week, signaling the unofficial start to the 2013 season. With Big 12 Football Media Day in Dallas just two weeks away (July 22-23), pundits spanning from the mountains to the plains are wondering – among other things - if WVU can possibly recover from the personnel hits it has taken on the offensive side of the football.
We all know the three big names, but West Virginia’s losses cut deeper than Geno Smith and his record-breaking receiving tandem. All told, the Mountaineers lost eight part-or-full-time starters from last season’s offense – all of whom attracted the interest of the NFL. That says a lot about the sheer volume of talent WVU is tasked with replacing.
But let’s not jump to conclusions.
If you expect Dana Holgorsen to flinch, you haven’t been paying attention.
“We’re not going to do anything different than what we’ve always done,” Holgorsen said following the spring. “A lot of times what happens is when you have guys that were that prominent, the rest of the guys refuse to step up because they don’t have to. When those guys aren’t there, you have to have guys step up.
“I fully anticipate having some guys step up. I don’t have any idea who those guys are going to be yet.”
Holgorsen’s full-throttle, aggressive approach has been proven effective several times over in the Big 12, not just by his own teams, but by others as well. With its ball control offense, Kansas State bucked the trend as last year’s champion, but Bill Snyder’s Wildcats were the exception – not the rule. This is, after all, a league that even last season saw the programs that finished in the bottom seven of the conference standings in time of possession win a higher percentage of their games (57%) than the top three teams in that category (50%). It’s a high-scoring, fast-paced conference populated by teams that strike fast and ask questions later – and Holgorsen’s philosophy fits right in. A year ago, West Virginia produced 47 scoring drives of fewer than 180 seconds in duration.
Even Texas, the birthplace of the wishbone offense and a program that in recent years tried to return to its smashmouth roots, has spent the offseason vowing to pick up the pace offensively.
“This league is really good at tempo offense and there are really fast players. Nobody is huddling and nobody is substituting, so your defense gets stuck out there and they're snapping the ball every 15 seconds,” Longhorns coach Mack Brown told ESPN.com earlier this year. “Your defensive coordinator can't call defenses because there's not enough time for your players to look over at him. Your big guys get tired because they can't get off the field."
Welcome to the Big 12. If your possession lasts longer than three minutes, call a doctor.
For the Mountaineers, it might not be a stretch to suggest you can reduce their offensive fate in the coming months down to one simple question – it’s more of a request, actually.
Will the next Sonny Cumbie please stand up?
No, that’s not a lost duet by Al Jolson and Eminem. It’s a reference to the resilient ability of the Air Raid offense – in the face of potentially catastrophic personnel losses - to foster the players it needs to keep on ticking.
There have been countless examples of Holgorsen and the other architects of this system finding ways to replace the loss of remarkable production, but Cumbie, Texas Tech’s starting quarterback in 2004, has become something of a poster child for that plug-and-play track record of success.
Coming out of Snyder (Texas) High School, where he was coached by David Baugh (the son of the legendary “Slingin’” Sammy Baugh), Cumbie hadn’t even been offered a scholarship by Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach – or by any other major college program for that matter. He had merely been invited to show up in Lubbock ready to enroll in classes and practice football.
Cumbie bided his time and slowly worked his way up the depth chart before ultimately taking over the starting job in 2004 for B.J. Symons – a departing senior who had shredded the Big 12 for a school-record 5,833 yards passing the previous year.
The Red Raiders had lost top receivers Wes Welker and Carlos Francis to the NFL, and with the offense in the hands of an unheralded signal caller who had rejected offers from Tarleton State and West Texas A&M to take Leach up on a walk-on opportunity, even Tech’s own coaching staff didn’t know what their fortunes might hold.
“We were all wondering ‘what are we going to do?’ Well, Sonny Cumbie stepped in there as a nobody,” said Holgorsen, “and he was great.”
He sure was.
Cumbie wasted no time proving the system would continue to flourish – even with a “nobody” behind center. He posted more than 440 yards in each of his first three starts and went on to throw for nearly 5,000 yards to lead the nation in total offense, along the way guiding the Red Raiders to an 8-5 finish. Cumbie added an exclamation point by throwing for 520 yards to help Texas Tech outgun Aaron Rodgers and the No. 4-ranked Cal Golden Bears in the Holiday Bowl, 45-31.
The compelling case of Sonny Cumbie isn’t, of course, the only instance of Dana Holgorsen and the Air Raid offense finding ways to overcome the loss of incredible playmakers through the years.
There have been many more.
Three years after Cumbie’s dynamic season, the Red Raiders in 2007 were confronted with the departure of two of college football’s top five pass catchers in Robert Johnson (fourth nationally) and Joel Filiani (fifth nationally). Holgorsen and crew responded by plugging in a little known redshirt freshman named Michael Crabtree before helping him explode for 134 grabs to lead the country in receiving.
In 2010, when Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon first crossed paths with Dana Holgorsen, he was an obscure redshirt sophomore with 20 catches. He hadn’t even cracked the Cowboys’ starting lineup. After one year in Holgorsen’s system, however, Blackmon was a unanimous All-American and the Biletnikoff Award winner as the nation’s premier receiver. He went on to win the Biletnikoff again in 2011 before being selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
When Brandon Weeden took the reins of Holgorsen’s offense at Oklahoma State that same year, he was an unknown redshirt junior - a baseball castoff who hadn’t started a game at quarterback since high school in 2001. Weeden entered 2010 with just 27 career pass attempts, but in just one season with Holgorsen, he threw for more than 4,200 yards and became OSU’s first all-conference quarterback since the 1930s.
The list goes on.
Heading into 2008, Houston senior Mark Hafner had never caught more than 40 balls in a season. In one year under Holgorsen while he was the Cougars play caller, Hefner racked up 86 catches and 11 touchdowns.
Going into that same 2008 campaign, Holgorsen was also handed the chore of replacing standout feature back Anthony Alridge (1,597 yards). The coach simply plugged newcomer Bryce Beall into the system and helped him become the first freshman in UH history to break the 1,000-yard barrier (1,247).
Where talent is hidden, Holgorsen smokes it out. Where talent is already in place, Holgorsen enhances it.
For instance, when Holgorsen took over as the offensive coordinator at Houston, Case Keenum was a skilled but unpolished passer with nearly as many career interceptions (10) as touchdown tosses (14). In two seasons under Holgorsen, Keenum led the nation in total offense both years and threw for more than 10,000 yards, including 88 touchdown passes against just 26 interceptions en route to becoming college football’s all-time career passing leader.
And we all know what Holgorsen did with the talented trifecta he inherited in Morgantown.
In 2010, the year before the coach arrived, sophomore Tavon Austin totaled 58 catches in 13 games. Last season, as a senior in Holgorsen’s system, Austin caught his 58th pass of the season in West Virginia’s fifth game.
In Stedman Bailey, Holgorsen was handed a redshirt sophomore with four touchdown catches. In two years under the former receiver’s coach, Bailey hauled in 37 scoring grabs, including 25 in 2012 – the second highest single season total in major college history.
Prior to playing for Holgorsen, Geno Smith as a starter had averaged 213 passing yards per game, 5.9 yards per attempt and he had never beaten a Top 25 team. In the past two years, Smith averaged 330 per game, 8.2 per attempt and helped the Mountaineers knock off four ranked opponents.
You can stop me when you see a pattern developing …
History appears to be on West Virginia’s side in its efforts to rebound from the loss of such productive playmakers as Geno and Co. The track record of Holgorsen’s offenses strongly suggests he’ll once again dig enough live rounds out of that old bandolier to somehow emerge with his guns blazing.
But here’s the rub: there’s no telling what size or shape those live rounds might come in.
“We have a whole bunch of guys who are going to get thrown into the mix. I have no idea who the guys will end up being,” said Holgorsen. “I don’t know who the quarterback’s going to be, I don’t know who the featured running back is going to be, I don’t know who the 2 to 3 to 4 receivers are going to be and who will step up to make plays. But I’m pretty confident in the system and how we practice to where somebody is going to step up and be the guys we talk about two to three years from now.”
Who “the guys” will end up being is obviously up for debate, but if the past means anything at all, things could certainly prove entertaining on the way to finding out.
In the meantime, I’ll see you at the fifty.
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