Spring Football Observations
I have been around long enough to know that you don’t get a whole lot out of spring football games – or many of the spring football practices, for that matter.
So whatever you are reading about how great this guy looked or how bad that guy looked I would ingest with caution.
I’ve seen too many times when those spring-game stars never quite materialized in the fall, and other times when the guys who looked very average in the spring ended up being outstanding players when the games count.
Pat White certainly falls into that category.
When I first saw him throw a football as a freshman I thought to myself, "Do the West Virginia coaches really think they can win football games with that guy?" Actually, no Mountaineer quarterback in 120-some years of football here has ever won more games than Pat White – or won as many big games as he did either.
Keeping that in mind, there were some things that we observed this spring that I believe will likely carry over into the fall.
No. 1, the secondary is much bigger, much more athletic, much more confident and much more capable of getting to the football this year. The coaches raved all spring about sophomore corner Daryl Worley and you can see why. Coach Dana Holgorsen has said this is the best the corners have looked since Keith Tandy was here, well, I will double down and say Worley is the most impressive corner physically I've seen since Mike Logan played in the mid-1990s. At safety, every time there was a loud crack of the pads it was usually Karl Joseph or K.J. Dillon doing the cracking.
During the Charleston scrimmage a few weeks ago I had my head down writing some notes when I heard the oohs and aahs from the crowd and saw running back Dreamius Smith down on the ground next to the goal line. I asked one of the coaches afterward who made that hit and he replied, “Who do you think?”
Karl Joseph, of course.
No. 2, West Virginia has more experienced linebackers than I can ever recall, and simplifying things on defense was a stroke of genius by new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. I am confident that Tony will have his guys lined up and ready to go when Baylor, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State try and tempo the Mountaineers this year.
The defensive line is in good hands with veteran coach Tom Bradley assigned to that position, and those down guys are now back to holding their gaps and creating pathways for the linebackers and safeties to make most of the plays. If they can hold up, especially at nose, then this defense has a chance to be much better than it has been the last couple of seasons.
If you recall, the one common denominator with those outstanding West Virginia defenses of recent years was a nose that didn’t give up ground - whether it was Keilen Dykes or Chris Neild.
Offensively, it's clear WVU will have one of the deepest RB corps in the Big 12. Whoever the No. 1 guy is at that position when the season starts will have earned it, that’s for sure. The tight ends/fullbacks are in really good hands and I think the O-line is going to be OK, especially if Ron Crook is able to develop a couple of reliable backups.
I know Holgorsen said he wanted to see more downfield production from his wide receiver corps this spring, but Kevin White, Mario Alford and Daikiel Shorts proved they could do it at times last year against Big 12 defenses. A real key for those guys will be doing it more consistently, however.
Coaches are notorious creatures of habit and they like to know what they’re going to get on a game-by-game basis. It’s like a 15-point scorer in basketball – what you are counting on is somewhere between 13-to-17 points from that 15-point scorer each night, not 26 one game and 4 the next night. That’s what this year’s group of wide receivers must try and avoid.
I see the kicking game being one of the real strengths of this year’s team as well. I recall many years ago when Don Nehlen discovered walk-on kicker Paul Woodside and proclaimed that his good recruiting class had turned into a great one because he found a kicker who was money in the bank.
Well, it looks like Holgorsen has a kicker with an NFL-caliber leg in Josh Lambert, meaning any time the Mountaineers reach the opposing 40 they are a threat to score. For those of you skeptical of the value that a reliable kicker presents to a team just ask Bobby Bowden how important kickers can be to the success of a football season. He's a few wide-rights away from a having a couple more national titles.
Punting also appears to be in good hands once again with junior Nick O’Toole. And if Mario Alford’s kickoff return for a touchdown to begin this year’s spring game is any indication (hopefully it is), then the return game should be better. Last year, the longest kickoff return was a mere 43 yards, also by Alford.
That brings us to the quarterback position. Holgorsen said after Saturday’s spring game that he isn’t going to make a decision on a starter until this fall when a healthy Clint Trickett returns to the mix and touted freshman William Crest joins the team.
The three guys who played this spring – Paul Millard, junior college transfer Skyler Howard and Logan Moore – had their good days and their bad days. From these untrained eyes it was pretty clear to me that Millard and Moore were more comfortable running the offense than Howard was.
Howard had the look of a young, inexperienced quarterback who didn’t trust what he was seeing, which is certainly understandable with only 15 spring practices under his belt. But I am told Howard is a diligent student of the game and wants to be good, so hopefully he can progress during the summer before the Mountaineers return to the field this fall.
Trickett, too, has not had a lot of experience operating Holgorsen’s offense. A good deal of what the Florida State transfer learned last year was force-fed to him over a two-week period before the Mountaineers began regular-season game planning. Unfortunately, Trickett, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, didn’t have the benefit of getting reps during the spring, which keeps him behind the eight ball a little bit.
As for Crest, I am told that he has a live arm and possesses great playmaking skills. The obvious question for him will be how quickly he can come in and pick up things once he arrives this summer.
Last year, Holgorsen was forced to use three different quarterbacks - at one point doing so in a three-week span. That’s clearly not a recipe for success.
“I’ve never done that before and we all agree it’s not the answer,” Holgorsen said after Saturday’s spring game. “There will be a time in August to make these decisions. We get 28 practices, so 20 of them are going to be non-Alabama prep to where we practice and we need to get better. Guys need to step up, make plays and take control of that position.”
The sooner the better, because the next time we get to see them the games will count.
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