2014 Football Preview
Dana Holgorsen is certainly eager to flip the page on last year – a forgettable one in just about every aspect.
Holgorsen couldn’t decide on a quarterback so he used three different ones and it showed, especially during the Maryland game over in Baltimore when West Virginia’s offense ground to a halt by producing just 175 yards – by far the worst performance ever for any offense with which Holgorsen has been associated.
The defense once again provided very little resistance, particularly late in the year when a lack of depth and an abundance of inexperience reared its ugly head. The Mountaineers had second-half leads in losses to Texas Tech, Kansas State, Texas and Iowa State, blowing those games late either because they couldn’t make a big stop on defense or because of a boneheaded mistake on offense.
For Holgorsen, considered one of college football’s foremost offensive minds, West Virginia’s 4-8 season in 2013 was a miserable one any way you slice it up.
“I don’t anticipate those dynamics ever happening again in the next 30 years of coaching - or however long I am fortunate to be able to coach,” he said. “You had three new coaches that have never been with us before. We had the issues at the quarterback position that have been very well documented. You had six or seven skill kids that have been in the program for their first year. That’s just a dynamic that is not good.”
Holgorsen’s offensive staff has remained intact for another season, which is a good development, and he hopes the defensive room can become more dynamic with the naming of Tony Gibson as the Mountaineers’ fourth defensive coordinator in as many years. Added experience and expertise comes in the form of 34-year coaching veteran Tom Bradley, formerly of Penn State.
The defense will remain a three-man front and the terminology will be the same, but Gibson will add his own personality to a Mountaineer defense that has been susceptible to giving up large chunks of yardage and touchdowns at a rapid-fire rate of late.
“Looking back on it, you sit there and you study what you did and what the plays are and try and make some changes … which we do every year,” Holgorsen explained. “With that said, I think we are way ahead of where we were a year ago. Time will tell on how far."
How far West Virginia will go in 2014 will most likely ride on the surgically repaired right shoulder of senior quarterback Clint Trickett, named the starter earlier this summer when none of the other quarterbacks could distinguish themselves during spring drills when Trickett was on the mend.
Keeping Trickett upright and healthy will be a major factor in whatever success West Virginia enjoys this year.
“Clint (has been) playing well,” said Holgorsen. “There is a comfort level that he has that I’m excited about. There is also a comfort level that his teammates have with him, which is good.”
Based on the one scrimmage the media was permitted to watch, it appears the plan is to have senior Paul Millard back up Trickett and let touted true freshman quarterback William Crest, Jr. get an opportunity to learn Holgorsen’s system without the pressure of having to game plan each week.
“Paul looks good,” said Holgorsen. “He has been taking reps and is obviously the most game-ready. I haven’t made that decision for sure yet. William is a guy that is going to continue to rep and continue to get better. His ceiling is high. How far can he advance? I don’t know yet, so he will continue to get reps as well.”
As for Trickett, he completed just 53 percent of his passes last year (an extremely low percentage for Holgorsen-coached quarterbacks) and his seven-to-seven touchdown-to-interception ratio is not what Holgorsen is accustomed to seeing. Trickett will have to make drastic improvement in both of those areas if West Virginia’s offense is expected to click the way it did in 2011 and 2012 when Geno Smith was operating it.
Trickett should have more weapons at his disposal, including a physical outside pass catching presence in 6-foot-3-inch, 209-pound senior Kevin White and a real burner on the other side of the field in sub-4.4 sprinter Mario Alford.
Those two showed flashes of brilliance last year, but not consistently enough for Holgorsen’s liking. Actually, West Virginia’s most consistent receiver last year was Daikiel Shorts, who is returning for his sophomore season. Shorts is West Virginia’s top returning receiver with 45 catches for 495 yards and two touchdowns.
Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman are two physical, H-back/fullback types who can line up just about anywhere on the field and can be used in an assortment of ways. A real key for the receiver corps will be finding an effective No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 guy to keep the pressure on defenses. If West Virginia can find them, that will open things up for a deep and talented running back corps that features five players with big-time college football playing experience.
Sophomore Wendell Smallwood came out of spring practice as the No. 1 running back and has all of the qualities the coaching staff is looking for at that position, but he got sidetracked this summer and Dreamius Smith moved up to the No. 1 spot on the depth chart at the start of fall camp. Now, indications are that Pitt transfer Rushel Shell has performed well during the preseason, not to mention two other experienced guys in Dustin Garrison and Andrew Buie, making the call on a starter extremely difficult – a good problem to have, naturally.
“We’re still figuring that one out,” said Holgorsen last week. “Whoever we put down on paper as far as who the starter is, I don’t think that is going to be an indication of how many reps they’re going to get. Whoever gets the hot hand, whatever our game plan is going to be … those guys are versatile, they can do different things, so everybody wants to see who we march out there but I think what’s probably more important is how many snaps they are going to get throughout the course of a game. I don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Holgorsen does have an answer for the five guys blocking up front for them. The No. 1 group has been the same all preseason with sophomore Tyler Orlosky manning the center position, touted seniors Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski working at offensive guard, and athletic Adam Pankey and Marquis Lucas positioned at the two outside spots. Getting three more Big 12-ready offensive linemen to man the center, guard and tackle spots has been the big objective of second-year offensive line coach Ron Crook this preseason.
Of the five guys starting up front, the word is that Glowinski has a chance of being a really special player.
“Going into his senior year, he is as good an offensive guard as I’ve seen,” said Holgorsen. “He looks great. He is a great kid. He is a great leader and he’s great academically. He is exactly what you want.”
Collectively, the offense has the makings of being a pretty good group if it can become more efficient, especially in those critical areas that determine the outcomes of football games.
“We were middle of the pack (in the Big 12) last year in yards per game and yards per play, but dead last in the stuff that matters which is third down, fourth down, turnover margin and score-zone rate,” said Holgorsen. “Good offenses are the ones that are extremely efficient in those situations. Everybody is good enough to be able to get yards and first downs. It’s the great offenses that are efficient when it really matters.
“Florida State was the most efficient red zone team in the country last year at 97 percent,” Holgorsen continued. “I would say that’s pretty good. When they got down there they scored every time. That’s just being able to understand the offense and execute when things are extremely hard and that is what good teams are made of.”
“We had our problems defensively, too,” said Holgorsen. “I thought we were pretty good defensively – just in playing the defense we got better – but when it was third down we weren’t very good. We were last in the league in third down defense, if I’m not mistaken, and we have to get better at that. We have to get better at those critical situations.”
The biggest question surrounding this year’s defense is if the guys up front can be stout enough to stop the power running games they will see from teams such as Alabama, Texas and Kansas State, and if those same guys are also agile enough to get to the passer more frequently than they did last year against the high-tempo teams such as Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.
West Virginia was ninth in the Big 12 with just 16 sacks last year, and even more concerning than that, the guys up front didn’t apply enough consistent pressure. That meant guys like Bryce Petty, Jake Waters, Davis Webb and Case McCoy had the time to sit in the pocket and sauté West Virginia’s secondary - something they did frequently last year, unfortunately.
A major objective of new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s is getting more heat on opposing quarterbacks and he may have found some help in that area with the addition of Gardner-Webb transfer Shaquille Riddick, a super-lean 6-foot-6-inch, 244-pound edge rusher. Riddick, a one-year transfer, has displayed an ability to get to the quarterback during preseason camp, but the real question will be how well he can hold his ground when teams run at him, which is surely going to happen a lot this year.
Working with Riddick at defensive end is sophomore Noble Nwachukwu, who possesses a much thicker frame at 6-feet-2 and 275 pounds. The other two defensive line spots are expected to be occupied by junior Kyle Rose at nose and senior Dontrill Hyman at the other defensive end spot. Sophomore Christian Brown and junior Eric Kinsey should also see plenty of action.
The linebacker corps is down one experienced player right now with senior Jared Barber still recovering from last year’s knee surgery, but the group as a whole appears to be in pretty good shape with Nick Kwiatkoski, Brandon Golson and Wes Tonkery manning the mike, will and sam linebacker positions. Isaiah Bruce, Al-Rasheed Benton and Edward Muldrow are three more good ones who are capable of playing a lot.
In the secondary, playmaking junior Karl Joseph is locked in at bandit safety, a healthy KJ Dillon is back and ready to go at spur, and sophomore Daryl Worley appears to be a star in the making at one cornerback position.
The two positions still unsettled following preseason camp are the cornerback spot opposite Worley where Terrell Chestnut and Travis Bell are battling it out, and at free safety where sophomore Jeremy Tyler and true freshman Dravon Henry have performed well. Overall, there appears to be enough quality depth in the back end to also assemble effective nickel and dime defenses.
“I think we are a good, solid, two-deep on defense,” said Holgorsen. “I just don’t know who all of the starters are, and I don’t know what the rotations are going to be yet.”
On special teams, West Virginia has two exceptional kickers returning in sophomore placekicker Josh Lambert and junior punter Nick O’Toole. Lambert can comfortably make field goals from the 40-yard line and beyond and is also a proven kicker in big situations, converting the game-winning field goal in overtime to beat TCU on the road last year.
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