Clint Trickett will be making his fifth start at quarterback when West Virginia visits TCU today.
FORT WORTH, Texas - Dana Holgorsen's offense is at its best when the quarterback running it is at his best.
Sure, there are other variables, not the least of which is a group of dependable receivers and backs and a sturdy offensive line. The quarterback is still just one of 11 players on the field, but his ability to not only master the offense but all the intricacies that go with it can make up for a lot of other ills.
Consider, for example, what Geno Smith managed to accomplish in 2012. Yes, he had NFL-caliber receivers in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, but he was also working behind a suspect offensive line with a group of fairly average running backs.
But consider this, too: Smith was far more effective for most of 2012 than he was in 2011, his first year in Holgorsen's system. That year the offense seldom really clicked until late in the season, particularly in the Orange Bowl. And for all practical purposes, by then Smith had a year behind him.
That history lesson is relevant today because, two-thirds of the way through the 2013 season, West Virginia's offense is still struggling, far more so than even the 2011 version struggled. The Mountaineers have used three different starting quarterbacks. Clint Trickett, who will start today against TCU at Amon G. Carter Stadium (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU), will start for just the fifth time.
Trickett, too, has been on campus just five months. He's practiced in the offense only three months. And while Holgorsen has had quarterbacks in the past succeed right from the start in his offense, he's never had one train for less time (unlike, say, Brandon Weeden, Trickett didn't even have the spring) and with so much inexperience around him.
The results have been fairly predictable, although few - including even Holgorsen - wanted to admit that this might be an ugly process.
"Yeah, I probably gave ourselves a little bit too much credit,'' Holgorsen finally admitted last weekend after Kansas State shut down the offense. "I thought we could coach them up a little bit better. I thought our continuity would take care of itself just by playing together and practicing.''
It hasn't, which is by far the most significant reason West Virginia (3-5, 1-4 Big 12) goes into its final four games needing three wins just to salvage an appearance in a bowl game, any bowl. Perhaps that improves as the final four games play out. But any way one slices it, it has been a torturous process.
Not only is Trickett unsure of all the things he's supposed to do, he's unsure too about what the 10 others around him are going to do because in many cases - particularly with his receivers and backs - they are just as new to this as is he.
Take, for instance, last week when Trickett couldn't even seemingly make some of the easier throws to open receivers.
"Clint missing close throws is a combination of things. Missing some things last week was due to him not trusting the offensive line too much,'' Holgorsen opined. "His eyes weren't always on the right place and he missed some reads.
"The communication [between Trickett and Holgorsen on the sideline] is good. We fixed those issues with reps and practice. Continuity with the receivers will improve with time. It's a whole list of things that need to be worked on. No one really has time or patience for it, but it's just reality.''
The problem isn't that Trickett can't grasp the offense. He's not slow. He graduated from Florida State in 31/2 years (the junior enrolled a semester early, redshirted a year and then played two for the Seminoles) and had no trouble grasping that pro-style offense.
But after playing in that system for 31/2 years and mastering it, to learn something completely different in terms of style, reads and terminology is a tall order in a short amount of time. It's why Paul Millard was chosen the starter over Trickett at the beginning of the season and at least part of the reason Ford Childress was given the next shot. Trickett seemed unquestionably the most magnetic of the three as far as leading a team and he was also easily the most experienced, having played in so many crucial games as a backup at Florida State.
But the familiarity with the offense was missing. Holgorsen loves to say that his offense can be taught in three days, but that's the base offense. It's not all of the intangibles that come with familiarity, especially for the quarterback.
Trickett had mastered those intangibles at Florida State. Not so much at West Virginia.
"I still make jokes with Ford and he's getting tired of it,'' Trickett said. "I'll see a play on film and I'll call it in Florida State's offense. Having that in the back of your mind maybe slows it up a little bit.''
The quarterback in Holgorsen's offense can't afford to be slow. Smith was for much of the first year, so even though he was playing with a familiar cast in a familiar setting it was slow to come together. By the second year, Smith was so familiar with the offense and the parts around him that he could do everything Holgorsen wanted - and needed - him to do.
Trickett is to the point now where he has pretty much mastered the offense and the reads, but it's still a matter of doing it with other inexperienced players and then taking it to the next level, which is recognizing what the offense is designed to do against specific defensive shifts and changing things on the fly.
Holgorsen has pretty much given up on that happening this year.
"That ain't gonna happen this year. I've come to terms with that,'' Holgorsen said of Trickett calling anything more than the most basic of audibles. "He's going to do his absolute best to understand and go out to execute it. [Anything beyond that is] a hundred percent for the offseason.
"He needs to look at cut-ups from an entire year without the pressure of trying to prepare for an opponent. He needs to sit in a room and study it, then go outside and work on that for a couple months. He's going to need that down time and offseason time in order to grasp what we are asking of him, which isn't surprising.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.