MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Every day throughout preseason practice, Tony Gibson would gather West Virginia’s defense, put what happened that day to the side and turn the group’s attention to the future. Every day, those Mountaineers would work on something they expect to see from No. 2 Alabama’s offense when the two teams open the season at the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game on Aug. 30.
“Run fits, maybe a couple routes, whatever it may be, we just wanted to get the kids honed in on what we think they’re going to do,” said Gibson, WVU’s defensive coordinator.
That’s a good idea, but here’s the problem with that idea: WVU has only a degree of certainty about what the Crimson Tide will bring with them to the Georgia Dome. Alabama has at least created the impression the offense may look different in 2014. Gibson is left with a starting point.
“They’re going to do what they do,” Gibson said. “They have two — no, three — tremendous tailbacks. They have an All-American wide receiver. They have a slot receiver that’s as good as anybody in the country. They’re going to play-action us and they’re going to try to run it right at us. They’re doing to do a lot of different stuff. We have to prepare, which is why we have to get good at what we do and go in there with confidence that we’ll be able to stop them.”
That starting point is accurate, but it isn’t nearly enough to make anyone feel comfortable against a team as talented, capable and, at the same time, mysterious as Alabama.
The team is touted for its defense, and rightfully so, because of head coach Nick Saban, defensive coordinator Kirby Smart and the many defensive players who have been high draft picks in the NFL. A year ago, though, the offense was ranked No. 17 in scoring (38.2 points per game) and No. 33 in total offense (454.1 yards per game).
What Alabama does, as described by Gibson, is formidable and it’s somewhat rare for the Mountaineers. The last time they saw an offense that shared as many principles or characteristics was probably against Greg Schiano’s Rutgers team in 2011. Gibson was coaching at Pitt. The closest offense in the Big 12 is the physical and typically run-prone Kansas State team.
Gibson is willing to go farther back, though, and reference an Arizona win against USC in 2012. Gibson was on the staff with the Wildcats and USC was coached by Lane Kiffin, who is about to begin his first year as the Alabama offensive coordinator. Arizona won 39-36 and allowed 493 yards passing, including 345 yards and two touchdowns on 16 receptions by Marqise Lee.
That part might be mentioned to WVU’s cornerbacks as they prepare for Alabama’s preseason All-American Amari Cooper, who despite his size and skill caught just 45 passes as a sophomore last season.
Kiffin’s influence is something Gibson has to consider. Kiffin has promised “very small” changes to an offense he doesn’t believe needs many repairs. Throughout spring football and preseason camp, Alabama’s players spoke about Kiffin’s push to get the ball to its most dangerous playmakers. That would include Cooper and Christion Jones, but also others, including a superb stable of running backs.
The 6-foot-2, 221-pound T.J. Yeldon (1,235 yards rushing and 14 touchdowns last season), 6-2, 241-pound Derrick Henry (the all-time leading rusher in the history of high school football), and 6-1, 202-pound Kenyan Drake create problems running the ball, but Alabama’s running backs only caught 41 passes last season. Yeldon and Drake, the team’s top two rushers last season, combined for 32 receptions and 318 yards and seven catches of at least 15 yards. Henry’s only reception was a 61-yard touchdown.
All those numbers could grow with Kiffin, who featured running backs as receivers as the offensive coordinator and head coach at USC, as could the production of 6-6, 240-pound tight end O.J. Howard, who averaged a team-high 19.2 yards across 14 catches as a freshman last season.
How much Kiffin changes — or is allowed to change — and how much Alabama remains Alabama is what Gibson has to anticipate.
“That’s the million-dollar question: What are they going to do?” he said. “If you go back and break down USC and you break down Alabama, they’re not the same. Are they going to go 50-50? Is it ‘He’s got to do all our stuff and learn it?’ Or is it ‘We’re wholesale changing it and doing what Kiffin does?’”
That’s a massive variable, and one the Mountaineers can only anticipate until the game, which is where they’ll have to adjust. It’s not the biggest unknown, though.
Alabama hasn’t named a starting quarterback and Gibson doesn’t think he’ll learn the identity until sometime next week. Normally, that’s not a major inconvenience, but the candidates complicate the situation here. Jacob Coker is a Florida State transfer. Blake Sims is a more renowned runner than passer and actually played running back as a redshirt freshman in 2011.
“They’re totally different,” Gibson said.
All Saban has said so far is he wants one to assert himself in a leadership role, but that he’s comfortable using both.
“I won’t be surprised if both of them do play,” Gibson said. “I’m sure they have a package — if Coker is the guy — so they can throw Sims in at quarterback and do some different things with him.
“That’s the hard thing about the first game. What are they going to do? That’s why we have to get honed in on what we do, on what we do well, so we can go out and execute against whatever it is they do. We have to be ready for anything early on and be able to adjust and get the kids on the same page and say, ‘OK, here’s their plan of attack.’”
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FRESHMAN DONTAE ANGUS told the Charleston Daily Mail he was approved by the NCAA Eligibility Center Wednesday and that he’s headed to campus today.
“I’m eligible, enrolled, cleared to practice. Everything, man,” the 6-foot-7, 309-pound Angus said.
Angus was committed to the University of Florida, but picked the Mountaineers on signing day. He said he believes he’ll begin as a defensive lineman at WVU, but is open to whatever the coaches thinks is best. Most notably, Angus’ addition gives WVU a full allotment of 85 scholarship players for the first time in coach Dana Holgorsen’s four seasons.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu. Follow him on Twitter at @mikecasazza.