MORGANTOWN - As I watched West Virginia wrap up its spring football drills Saturday afternoon with the Gold-Blue game, I couldn't help but think of Rich Rodriguez.No, the thought wasn't born of nostalgia. Call it practicality.Say what you will about Rodriguez - go ahead, I'll give you a second . . . there, time's up - but the guy showed versatility and adaptability. It's easy to forget all these years later, but when Rodriguez showed up at West Virginia in 2001, he carried with him much the same reputation as Dana Holgorsen a decade later. Everywhere he'd been, he was considered a passing-game revolutionary.Sure, the concept was different, but at Glenville State and at Tulane and at Clemson, he aired it out. The notion that he would do the same thing at West Virginia was never questioned.
Well, that is, it wasn't questioned until Rodriguez inherited Avon Cobourne and Rasheed Marshall. His first team at WVU rushed for slightly more yards than it passed. His second team rushed for more than twice as many yards than it passed. By the time Pat White and Steve Slaton showed up, Rodriguez's offenses were downright pass-inept.Anyway, it all came rushing back on Saturday when very early Dustin Garrison ripped off a 19-yard run. On one of Dreamius Smith's first carries, he carried two or three would-be tacklers 10 yards. Wendell Smith ripped on a 12-yard run. Cody Clay lined up as a blocking back and wiped out defenders.And all of that with last year's leading rusher, Andrew Buie, standing on the sidelines in sweats. And - and here's the real kicker - with Holgorsen and the offensive coaches putting almost no emphasis on the running game."What we did in the running game was very limited,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "Yes, we worked on the run game [during the previous 14 spring practices], but [Saturday's scrimmage] was about the quarterbacks. We wanted to put pressure on them and see how they reacted.''
All of which begs the question: Might Holgorsen be in a situation akin to that of Rodriguez way back when? Might he look around at what he has and, because of it, alter what he does?Well, not likely."I think it just makes it better,'' Holgorsen said when asked if his admitted wealth of playmakers in the run game might lend itself to a shift to more of a running attack. "But we did come into the spring with an emphasis on being a good running football team.''Indeed, it's difficult to imagine Holgorsen changing gears the way Rodriguez did. It's just not his style. Rodriguez, after all, had devised a fast-paced, option-based system that over the years lent itself to mobile quarterbacks throwing the football. Adapting it into a run-first juggernaut was more or less a return to its roots.
Holgorsen's system is nothing like that, save for the speed of the game. He will always be, or so it seems, wed to multiple receivers meticulously reading defenses and a quarterback who can adapt on the fly. And there's nothing wrong with that.Still, nothing precludes a strong running game from being an effective aid to Holgorsen's system. In fact, some of his best offenses over the years at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State had terrific run games.And given the obvious trials he will have in attempting to seamlessly replace Geno Smith at quarterback, establishing and strengthening the run game isn't just a desire, it's a necessity.
And he knows it."That's one of the reasons Ron Crook was hired,'' Holgorsen said, referring to WVU's new offensive line coach. "It helps that he's a West Virginia guy, but the fact is he's pretty good at teaching those guys to come off the ball and smack people in the mouth. And we wanted to get better at that.''And so much of the just-completed spring drills were aimed at just that. By the time fall arrives, the hope is that West Virginia will have an offensive line that can drive block and open holes, not just backpedal and protect the quarterback. And with Buie, Garrison, Smith and Smallwood - and Clay as an escort - there should be no shortage of backs with a variety of skills."I like where we're at at running back,'' Holgorsen said. "All four of those guys bring something different to the table.''The question now is how much of an emphasis will be put on that run game. With three pass-game playmakers about to be chosen in the early rounds of this week's NFL draft and, at least for now, the most promising playmakers tied to the running game, the logical direction is to further develop what appears to be the offense's strength.And in the spring, that's just what Holgorsen did.
"When you have a young team, you can't be good at everything,'' Holgorsen said. "You have to pick the things you want to work on and try to get good at that stuff.''It will be interesting to see where that goes from here.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.