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WVU football: All eyes in the backfield for Gold-Blue Game

West Virginia University quarterback Skyler Howard (3) prepares to hand off to running back Wendell Smallwood during practice on April 5 at University of Charleston Stadium.

MORGANTOWN ­­— The center of attention for Saturday’s Gold-Blue Game at West Virginia University will be standing behind the center. The intrasquad scrimmage at Mountaineer Field is the last chance this spring for the offense and the defense to make the most of plans to enhance and harass quarterbacks.

A year ago, WVU sacked the opposing quarterback just 16 times. The other team got the Mountaineers quarterback on the ground 28 times.

“We’re going to turn our guys that can get after the quarterback loose,” defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Tony Gibson said. “When it’s a third down situation, we may be playing with 10 guys on their feet and one down guy.”

WVU is still working on that package and trying to find the right personnel. Gibson has some of the players at his disposal right now, but he thinks a few more options may be coming from high school and junior college over the summer. That package was on display briefly at Laidley Field for last week’s public practice and was one reason offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson came away a little upset with quarterbacks Paul Millard and Skyler Howard.

“I thought we got caught with the ball a couple of plays, Skyler and Paul both,” said Dawson, who is also the quarterbacks coach. “Just put the ball in play. You’re standing back there. You’ve got to have a clock in your head. There was one time Paul got taken back on a sack — just put the ball in play. There were a couple times with Skyler — just put the ball in play.”

Dawson’s eternal emphasis throughout spring practice has been on having quarterbacks who make decision to either get rid of the ball before getting in trouble or getting out of trouble in order to put the ball in play. He doesn’t care if the ball is intended for a receiver or sails safely out of bounds. He just wants it out of the quarterback’s hand so there isn’t a sack or a turnover.

An incomplete pass that flies into the second row might gain no yards, but it isn’t a negative play. Dawson would rather lose a down than lose yardage or possession.

Given Gibson’s proclivity to pressure the passer, Dawson’s players can expect to be challenged one last time in the 1 p.m. scrimmage before breaking for the summer.

“Taking a sack when they blitz and come wide-open free is one thing,” Dawson said, “but sitting back there and holding the ball for 10 seconds and taking the sack, I mean, come on. Get rid of the damn ball.”

WVU’s three-man defensive line hasn’t done a reliable job getting sacks or disrupting the passer since Bruce Irvin graduated following the 2011 season. Will Clarke, the most productive player the past two seasons, is likely to join Irvin in the NFL in next month’s draft. The Mountaineers will ask a lot of defensive ends Dontrll Hyman, Kyle Rose and Noble Nwachukwu, but they also know the outside linebackers and defensive backs will have to help.

That help figures to be there, even in a base package, with outside linebackers Brandon Golson and K.J. Dillon. Golson had four sacks last season, his first at WVU after two junior college seasons, while Dillon is more defensive back than safety playing the defense’s hybrid position.

“Brandon is a guy who’s very multiple in how we can use him,” Gibson sad. “He’s big enough (6-foot-2, 230 pounds) we can put him at defensive end and let him get after the quarterback a little bit. Obviously, he’s a true linebacker. That’s his true position, but we can move him around and do some different things.

“K.J. brings us a lot just because he can play (nickelback) for us. He can play man coverage. He tackles well. He’s a good blitzer. He’s very multiple in how we can use him, too.”

WVU hopes an older, heavier, stronger Marvin Gross, who former defensive coordinator Keith Patterson last season likened to a “185-pound Lawrence Taylor,” and junior college transfer Edward Muldrow can add pressure off the edge. In last week’s practice, Muldrow and Golson stood up at defensive end in a nickel package.

Gibson also has a list of safeties he can use as extra pass rushers and that will expand when junior college defensive back Jaylon Myers and high school defensive back Dravon Henry enroll over the summer.

“Anytime you’re playing an odd front with three guys down, you want as many athletes as you can on their feet,” Gibson said.

There’s no telling how exotic Gibson will get Saturday — or how exotic coach Dana Holgorsen will allow — because of the fear of showing too much in a public venue and a televised game. Whatever the look, though, Dawson wants his quarterbacks to react wisely to the situation.

He’d welcome some chaos because Howard, a junior college transfer new to all of this, and Millard, a senior who’s been known to hold onto the ball too long, would submit a lasting impression before Clint Trickett is cleared to return next month.

“Both guys have to play within their ability,” Dawson said. “Obviously, Paul’s not the most mobile guy, but he’s worked extremely hard this offseason. That was one point we emphasized with him. You don’t have to be the most mobile guy, but you can work to maximize your mobility in the weight room.

“So it’s all about moving the football. If you can move the football, I’ll give you a positive. If you don’t move the football, I’ll give you a negative. All the other stuff doesn’t matter.”

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.

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