MORGANTOWN — There are two things Shannon Dawson knows about quarterbacks and two things he has to remind observers about senior Paul Millard and junior college transfer Skyler Howard.
The first is important to note as Millard and Howard either make mistakes with their arms or plays with their feet.
“Very seldom are you sitting back there extremely comfortable,” said Dawson, WVU’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “Defenses are going to disguise coverage, they’re going to blitz, the looks are going to change, offensive linemen are going to bust protection.”
The second might matter more as it relates to the competition between the two this spring, which ends with the 15th and final practice in Saturday’s Gold-Blue game at Mountaineer Field. While there’s a big difference between what Millard and Howard know about the offense, there’s perhaps a greater disparity with regard to what both can do with it.
“The routine plays aren’t the ones that make you stick out,” Dawson said. “It’s whenever things break down, what do you do with the ball? Do you get caught? Get sacked? Do you get the ball out? Throw it away — I’m fine with that. Something positive has to happen when things break down. That’s the key.”
What Dawson has so far discovered is that Millard and Howard do things differently under duress. Neither is necessarily wrong, though.
Simply put, Millard has practiced more than anyone to ever play quarterback at WVU for Dana Holgorsen. This is his fourth spring. He knows the offense and what to do with the ball.
He’s a bit statuesque, though.
“He’s never going to be an extremely mobile guy because that’s his genetic makeup,” Dawson said of the 6-foot-2, 230-pound Millard and his negative-60 career rushing yards.
It gets him in trouble when he holds onto the ball too long, loiters in the pocket and lets defenders get a sack or knock the ball loose — or both. He doesn’t move very well and sometimes relies on his arm and what he knows to do with the ball to get him out of trouble.
Howard is smaller and quicker and used his legs with great success during his one season in junior college. He ran for 343 yards, but also stayed away from sacks and managed pressure with scrambles.
“A lot of his bigger plays were extended when he kept his eyes down the field,” Dawson said.
In the middle is Clint Trickett, who started seven games last season, his first with the Mountaineers after spending the previous three years at Florida State. Trickett, out the entire spring as he recovers from offseason shoulder surgery, didn’t run for yardage, but could avoid pressure and get outside the pocket to complete passes.
But he, too, could get in trouble when he was mired in uncertainty and held onto the ball too long. That’s something WVU hopes Trickett fixes by watching his first spring at WVU and learning what he missed when he with the Seminoles this time last year.
“Everyone’s got a different level of athletic ability,” Dawson said. “I think just by growing up and being a certain athletic way — or certain athletic not way — you become accustomed to making plays in a lot of different ways. Obviously, when things break down guys with more athleticism can escape quicker, have their feet, extend plays longer, this and that.
“But that doesn’t mean Paul can’t extend pays. He’s just probably not going to extend plays as long because when he extends them, they’re going to be chasing him pretty quick.”
The Mountaineers aren’t looking for the fastest quarterback. They won’t call running plays for the player they’d rather have throwing or handing off the football. Yet it’s impossible to ignore the evolution of the game when considering the future of Holgorsen’s offense.
Anything the quarterback can do to give a play more time to develop or to adjust it a bonus. It forces defenders to spend more time covering routes and receivers and gives the quarterback’s targets advantages to get open. It can eventually force defenses to change their aggressive tactics.
Since everyone from nose guards to safeties are faster and more agile now than ever before, it only makes sense to find physical counters behind the center.
Arm strength and accuracy will always be high on the list of intangibles Holgorsen and Dawson desire, but the offense will continue to be about distributing the ball. If a quarterback and use quickness and elusiveness to extend plays and create chances for the arm, it’s merely a new way to accomplish the same aims.
“There are times the protection will break down and a guy will come scot-free,” Dawson said. “What I’d like to see when that happens, especially when it happens in a critical situation, is for you to avoid that guy and go make a play. We’re not going to call perfect plays. It comes down to space and repetitions and people executing.
“The kids out there are at least comfortable enough to where they can be in the right place to execute plays when bad things happen. At some points, you’re going to have to avoid guys and extend a play. The more you can do that, the better we’re going to be.”
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.