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Mike Casazza: Trio of candidates make WVU backup QB battle intriguing

William Crest
Skyler Howard
Paul Millard

MORGANTOWN — This is either a sign of progress or just the way things are supposed to be at a major college football program. Whatever your choice, it’s a plus for West Virginia.

The Mountaineers aren’t worrying about a battle for the starting quarterback spot, as they did for the entirety of camp last year and then, whether because of performance or health, much of a 4-8 season. Instead, they are focused on and maybe even concerned about the identity of the backup.

“That competition,” WVU offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson said, “is going to be a good one. It’s going to be a really good one.”

It’s going to be a quick one, too. WVU started July 31 with eyes on the season opener against Alabama on Aug. 30. The camp part of this season ends Aug. 16 and the following week will end with Dawson picking a backup. That QB will be the No. 2 for the five days and three practices devoted to the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game.

A lot will happen between now and then.

“We’ll fluctuate them on a day-to-day deal,” Dawson said. “We’ll fluctuate them as far as getting reps, but there’s going to be a time when two guys are taking a majority of the reps. When you get closer to playing a game, you better have your first guy taking a majority of the reps and the No. 2 guy taking 20 percent, 15 percent. Ultimately, we’re going to get it down to two guys.”

Rarely will WVU let starter Clint Trickett and battling backups Paul Millard, Skyler Howard and William Crest get reps in the same day. The Mountaineers believe they see more from a few people getting a wealth of the action than from all of the players getting a little action. So they rotate, which makes their window of opportunity even smaller.

All of that would seem to conspire against Crest, the freshman from Baltimore. He’s been here the least amount of time and Howard, whose experience is only 15 spring practices, knows more and can be expected to do more than Crest.

Millard and Howard are competing against one another and Crest. Crest is competing against them and the calendar, but he is well-armed, figuratively, if not literally.

“He’s got all the tools, man,” Dawson said. “He’s a physically gifted kid. He’s big, physical and he can run and throw, but his head is just spinning now. His head is spinning with communication, with verbiage. But probably as an incoming freshman, he’s probably ahead of where I’ve been with kids in the past.”

There’s no bigger chore on offense than reprogramming a quarterback. There’s so much to cover mentally, and Trickett needed a season, a winter and a spring to get it right. Crest has to learn new schemes and terms and ways to signal plays. The way he thought through plays at Dunbar High School is different than what he’ll do at WVU.

“I think he’s got a certain passion to playing the game, too, which leads to him studying and stuff like that,” Dawson said.

Once the bandages come off the brain, Dawson can get to work on footwork and throwing mechanics. Crest is not without his flaws there, either.

“His release is good, but it’s the actual (process) when the ball comes out,” Dawson said. “It’s more to do with really the back leg just getting a little bent, crumbling, and that elbow goes down and it looks a little sidearm.”

This is not to say Crest is out of the picture this season. Quite the opposite, in fact. The new summer workouts with the coaches help a ton with the mental stuff, and the presence of Trickett and Millard isn’t entirely bad news, either. WVU knows what it has in each and coaches don’t have to give them an ordinary share of practice snaps. Crest stacks some of the extras on top of what he already gets.

Most importantly, WVU won’t commit a quarterback to a redshirt season. Not after last season and not with Trickett under center and the staff worried about his stature and the way he must protect himself better this season. The Mountaineers know as well as anyone they need guys to remain engaged just in case, and Dawson said the redshirt conversation won’t even happen until a kid gets through four or so games without playing.

One gets the idea, though, that Crest is in WVU’s plans and perhaps sooner than later. Holgorsen has never rotated quarterbacks within a game and doesn’t even like discussing the idea. He’s long embraced his offense and eschewed ploys. He’s never seen the need to reroute practice time to a Wildcat package or even a subset of his standard Air Raid offense that features a big quarterback for short-yardage situations.

Holgorsen said Monday, only five days into this, he’d be open to adapting. WVU can’t and won’t call the same plays for Crest and Trickett right now because Holgorsen said it’s “a little bit too technical” at this stage.

“There’s a reason Johnny Manziel redshirted. There’s a reason Jameis Winston redshirted,” Holgorsen said. “Those are the latest two Heisman Trophy guys.”

Crest runs basic stuff. WVU sees success and builds on it, increasing the difficulty slowly over time rather than overwhelming Crest all at once. WVU will remember what he does well and work on the rest and he’ll be handed more as he proves he can handle more. If Holgorsen believes Crest can be trusted in a certain situation with a specific set of plays in a game, it will happen.

“I would like to do that if he continues to progress because I think he’s a pretty good player,” Holgorsen said. “But again, I don’t want to put too much on his plate. If that package doesn’t look very good, we won’t do it. If he improves over the next three weeks, if those specific things that he can do well, if he can do things better than Clint when Clint is in there, we’d be more than happy to do it.”

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