MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Brian Mitchell has gotten to know Dana Holgorsen at two different times in his coaching career. The first version was the one most have come to recognize and expect.
It was 2006 and Mitchell, who today is West Virginia’s cornerbacks coach, was hired to do the same at Texas Tech. That put him opposite Holgorsen every day because Holgorsen was the inside receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator under coach Mike Leach. The Red Raiders would finish the season ranked No. 3 in passing offense and No. 6 in total offense and Mitchell saw Holgorsen as someone consumed by moving the ball and scoring points.
Holgorsen did both well enough to set out on his own. After three years as the co-coordinator with current Cal coach Sonny Dykes, Holgorsen headed to the University of Houston for two seasons starting in 2008. Mitchell would be named East Carolina’s defensive coordinator in 2010. Holgorsen hired Mitchell last season and Mitchell got to know the second Holgorsen, the one not many understand or accept on the eve of his fourth season.
“A big part of being a head coach is growth and development, and being a head coach for the first time, there is no manual for it. A lot of it is just osmosis through day-to-day interactions,” Mitchell said. “But I think Dana has grown tremendously. He focused solely on the offensive side at Texas Tech, but now he sees it as a whole.
“I noticed that my first day on the job here and I was just very impressed by the way he’d learned to carry the staff meetings, how he directed the team, the input he impressed upon the team.”
Holgorsen’s next challenge is perhaps his greatest, and consider the gravity of that statement knowing Holgorsen has won a BCS game, changed conferences and juggled three starting quarterbacks in a season.
The opponent Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game is No. 2 Alabama. His counterpart is Nick Saban. Only Saban has won national championships at different schools. Only Saban and Bear Bryant have won a Southeastern Conference championship at different schools. Saban is the highest paid coach and perceived to be the most powerful coach in college football. Holgorsen is coming off a 4-8 season and is leading a team to Atlanta that was picked to finish eighth in the Big 12’s preseason poll.
Those around him and who have known him longest believe he’s a changed coach and a better coach now than he was before.
“What he’s done a really good job of is finding different ways to raise the collective football IQ of this team,” Mitchell said.
It hasn’t meant more of Holgorsen, though. Though he is an offensive tactician, even he admits he’s ceded a wealth of control over the offense to his coordinator Shannon Dawson, who Holgorsen recruited to play at Wingate College in 1999. When Holgorsen was hired in December 2010, he didn’t need long to call Dawson, who then was a successful coordinator at the FCS level with Stephen F. Austin.
Holgorsen said his relationship with Dawson allows him to step away from the offense or the quarterbacks and go to other parts of the team, all while knowing the offense and the quarterbacks will be handled the way he wants.
“I think the way he sees the overall picture now is different,” Dawson said. “When a guy is an offensive guy his whole life — like he was and like I’ve been — typically your focus is on that side of the ball when you become the head coach. He looks at all three sides of the ball, and that probably makes his view of the offense a little bit different than what it was in the past.
“In the past, he was probably just worried about scoring points and playing as fast as he possibly could and he never took into account how that affected the other two phases of the game.”
The offensive innovator who introduced the diamond backfield formation has noticeably altered his defensive designs. For nearly a decade, WVU was renowned for a 3-3-5 odd stack defense. In Holgorsen’s second and third seasons — the ones to immediately follow the 2011 season with Jeff Casteel as defensive coordinator for the final time — WVU shifted to multiple defenses based in a 3-4 alignment.
Hiring Tony Gibson after the 2012 season and promoting him to defensive coordinator this past spring is as clear an indication as there can be that the defense will resemble what was in place before Holgorsen arrived — so clear, in fact, that Saban referenced the “odd stack which they’ve had success with in the past” in a press conference Monday.
Even practice habits have changed.
“We go against the defense live more than we did in years past because he thinks tackling is that important and being a good tackling team is important,” Dawson said. “The only way to get better at tackling is probably to tackle. Everything fits together, and you’ve got to be aware of the other two sides of the ball to be successful.”
Holgorsen remains linked to offense, which is why he has taken last year’s struggles so personally. Near the end of preseason camp, a time in which he said the Mountaineers had advanced far beyond where they were the year before, he said of 2013, “I don’t ever anticipating (that) happening ever again in the next thirty years of coaching, or however long I’m fortunate to coach.”
That’s because it was his style that he took from Leach and adjusted with his own preferences and ideas through the years that fell short of expectations. He knows he can’t let that happen again.
“What he’s done is found ways to conform to his personnel,” said safeties coach and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest, who was at Oklahoma State with Holgorsen in 2010 and who was a Cowboys assistant who opposed Holgorsen’s Texas Tech offenses. “That’s one thing some coaches do. They sort of force their scheme or their playbook on you. He looks at the pieces and figures out what he can do with those pieces within the framework of what he does.
“He has a lot of options, and that’s one thing I can appreciate about him and what he’s been doing and what he’s trying to do. He doesn’t really change his encompassing scheme. What he does is tweak it according to personnel. You’ve got credit to him for not force-feeding something just because it’s worked so well at other places.”
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.