Dave Hickman: Instilling confidence part of the coach’s job

MORGANTOWN — If you don’t know the numbers I’m about to throw out here, well, either you don’t care about or haven’t paid attention to West Virginia football of late.

In the last 20 games, dating back to midway through the 2012 season, the Mountaineers have won just six times. They’ve not only lost to Kansas, they have struggled against Georgia State and William & Mary. They’ve given up 35 or more points in 12 of those 20 games and fully half of the 12 losses haven’t even been competitive, what with an average scoring margin of roughly 51-19.

OK, maybe you weren’t exactly clear on some of those numbers, but you still had the general idea, right? This has been a team that just hasn’t been very good.

Now, step back for a moment and take stock of the fact that you probably treat WVU football as a diversion. And even though it’s not what dominates your life — and if it is you probably need professional help — you still are keenly aware of how unsuccessful this team has been of late.

Imagine if you were actually a part of it — if those failures had been something you experienced, rather than merely observed.

Do you think perhaps your confidence might be a bit frayed?

With the Mountaineers starting preseason camp today, I wondered about that. Like any college football team, this one is made up of guys who have seldom lacked confidence. Most were the best players on their high school teams and have seldom known anything but success, at least athletically.

Are they a bit shaken?

“I don’t know if you’d say I’ve lost confidence,’’ said wide receiver Kevin White, who arrived from junior college last year with a grand reputation and then pretty much fizzled. “Maybe a little bit. But I also know how hard it is now.’’

As camp opens in the shadow of all of those setbacks and with the specter of Alabama awaiting as the first opponent, instilling — or, rather, re-instilling — confidence might be as important a task to Dana Holgorsen and his staff as any X’s and O’s they will teach.

But it’s really nothing new.

“Part of coaching, part of teaching, part of motivating, is getting your guys to think that they’re better than are,’’ Holgorsen said. “That’s my job, that’s each assistant coach’s job, that’s our strength coaches’ job, to get these guy to feel good about who they are.’’

So how do you do that in the face of 6-12 over the last 20 games and with losses to Kansas and Iowa State the most recent experiences most have endured? Well, for Holgorsen it means putting a positive spin on last year’s 4-8 record. Yes, there were crushing losses. Yes, there was a downward spiral to some extent.

But he has to convince them that it wasn’t really that bad. Well, actually it was that bad. But it didn’t have to be.

“I think one thing that people are underestimating now is the number of kids we have on our team that know that last year could have turned out to be 9-3 pretty easily,’’ Holgorsen said. “We were competitive and we were in every game except two of the first five or six, I guess.’’

OK, so maybe 9-3 would be a pretty big stretch. Perhaps even 8-4. But there were opportunities. A 37-0 loss to Maryland wasn’t really reversible, nor was a 73-42 drubbing at Baylor.

“But even in the Baylor game, we kept playing,’’ Holgorsen said. “They beat us. They beat the brakes off us. But our guys kept playing and they scored and scored and scored and ended up scoring 42. To me that was the sign of a group of kids that are fighting.’’

But will they continue to fight? That’s the question.

“Actually, I see a group of guys that are going to fight now even harder,’’ he said. “Now they can fight with a little bit more confidence and a little bit more ability and familiarity with what we’re trying to do.’’

Yes, an experienced team may find it easier to fight. Then again, it’s also a team that faces Alabama in the season opener and Oklahoma in the Big 12 opener. Both teams have a preseason No. 1 ranking in their pocket. Also in the first four games is that Maryland team responsible for that whitewashing.

Not exactly a confidence builder, huh?

“Yeah, it’s tricky,’’ Holgorsen said. “But one of the reasons I like playing an opponent like we’re playing in the first game is that if you go out there and go toe-to-toe with them and put yourself in a position to win ... and then if you do, do you think confidence is going to be a problem?

“I’ve been in that position before when we played above our heads and beat a team that maybe we shouldn’t have on paper. And then all of a sudden your confidence is probably where you want it.’’

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

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