MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s offense and defense began spring practice last month searching for depth, and it appears both have found it as the Mountaineers enter the final week, capped by Saturday’s Gold-Blue Game.
While both sides of the ball have the same goal within reach, how they’re using it couldn’t be more different.
Offensively, the Mountaineers want to involve a lot of players, to make use of the stockade of talent and experience at running back, to use the second string to push the first team on the offensive line, to see the backups complement the starters at receiver. WVU coach Dana Holgorsen would like to see his offense use multiple running backs and use running backs at receiver, fullbacks at tight end and tight ends at receiver.
Ideally, WVU can keep the same core of players on the field and make use of a variety of formations without having to substitute. Yet the Mountaineers believe they can mix up the constituency of that core because they have options.
In other instances, WVU believes it’s capable of rolling starters and subs in and out with speed and without a slip in productivity so it can compete better in the speedy and productive Big 12.
“As far as offense, all around, we’re more suited,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “We’re deeper. We’ve got some experienced guys that have played. With experience and depth, I think we are.”
Defensively, things are less exotic, but no less effective. There are more returning starters and players with valuable experience on defense than on offense, but the coaches are fighting the urge to flaunt that flexibility.
“We don’t want guys moving around and jumping around all the time,” defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said. “We want to put guys in one position and teach them.”
A year ago, WVU had linebackers who would play defensive end and cornerbacks who would play safety. Defensive linemen and linebackers would play inside and outside. All of that was before a wave of injuries washed over the roster and forced a list of players to extend themselves beyond a point with which they or their coaches were comfortable.
The coaches still want defensive linemen and linebackers to know multiple positions, just in case, but they also want to have six or eight players ready to go, which means limiting what a player has to know. A starter will master his spot. If he needs to come out, a backup specifically trained for that spot comes into the game, which is an extension of Gibson’s plan to make things easier on his players so they can play with more freedom.
“Different linebackers have different responsibilities, so going into it they have you at ‘Sam’ and the next couple plays you’re at ‘Will,’ you’re like, ‘I have to change my whole mentality,’” said linebacker Isaiah Bruce, who was the team’s second-leading tackler as an inside linebacker in 2012, far less productive outside last season and back inside this season.
“Having one position and one spot, it makes you play so much faster.”
What’s been good for Bruce and all the backups in WVU’s deepest pool of players has also worked for sophomores Daryl Worley and Jeremy Tyler and juniors Karl Joseph and Ricky Rumph. Worley played every spot in the defensive backfield last season, but has been used exclusively at cornerback in the spring because of the number of players at safety. Joseph, who played free safety his first two years, is working at bandit safety now. Tyler and Rumph, who played multiple positions last season, are free safeties now.
The position coaches have gotten a long look at those players, and their backups, in those places. They know more about them now sooner than they have before.
“As long as we have two guys we think are good enough to win with at one position, that’s great,” Gibson said. “Both of them are going to play. We know in this league, with the way the offenses are and the tempo and all those things, that we’re going to play a lot of snaps, so we need to have a lot of guys ready.”
There are 11 players who can make a play on a defensive snap. The involvement is different on offense. Only six players can touch the ball, and it’s more limited than that. One player hands or throws the ball to a second player, who might be lucky to get a block from one teammate or a few teammates so he might do something special.
Holgorsen’s goal is to find the five best skill players for every play.
“Now we’re talking about depth being the problem, right?” Dawson said. “It’s not a bad thing.”
WVU likes its five running backs, so much so that Wendell Smallwood and Andrew Buie have been used as inside receivers. The Mountaineers have tinkered with ways to have more than two running backs on the field at once, which means making sure they all get opportunities in the spring.
“I don’t know if anybody has ever been through a season and said, ‘Man, we just had too many running backs that year,’” Dawson said. “That’s never happened. It’s happened the other way a lot because through the course of the season those guys get nicked up. You better have a lot of them.”
WVU also likes Kevin White and Mario Alford as starters at outside receiver and Daikiel Shorts inside as well as K.J. Myers and Jordan Thompson as backups with starting experience. There are even three big bodies now — Cody Clay, Garrett Hope and Eli Wellman — to let WVU make use of fullbacks, tight ends and H-backs and all the possibilities their presence allows.
“You mix in four or five guys at a position that can play — if you want to play — that’s the baseline for competition,” Dawson said. “The more competition you have the better it’s going to make everybody perform. If we can get more positions crowded, then we’ll be doing a good job.”