MORGANTOWN — The visual proof Dana Holgorsen was frustrated bordering on fed up with his rapport with his quarterback last season came in varied forms, be it flying headsets or swapping the players under center before a third-down snap.
It is said much has changed, but the signs West Virginia’s coaches are content with senior starter Clint Trickett this season will still be expressions of astonishment and disbelief.
“Every time we’ve been good on offense in the past, there were decisions made by the quarterback that weren’t even in the read,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson said.
Dawson would quickly ask himself, “Why in the world did the ball go one way when the play was supposed to go the other way?”
Before he could answer it, he’d realize the offense had moved or scored and that an unexpected outcome was a welcome outcome.
Then he’d chat up his quarterback and hear the explanation. Someone on defense did something wrong and the quarterback and receiver understood they had to take advantage.
“There are going to be certain things you do out there that as coaches you don’t expect to see, but you’re like, ‘Well, that looked pretty good,’” Dawson said. “The biggest thing is to get to where the communication is at a certain point and the comfort is at a certain point so when the defense makes a mistake and a guy does something that out of 100 snaps might only happen twice … you have the command and the comfort level to take advantage of it at that specific time.”
It’s nearly impossible to have that on offense if the quarterback arrived in August and he and the three starting receivers and top three tailbacks are all in their first season in the offense. That was the situation the Mountaineers were working with in 2013, when they finished 4-8 and only finished better than No. 60 nationally in one major offensive category.
That, though, was passing offense, and considering the struggles with three starters and their injuries, their turnover problems and their familiarity with the offense, it’s probably somewhat surprising WVU wound up ranked No. 34 (264.3 yards per game).
That should be better this season, though it all begins Saturday against No. 2 Alabama in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game. The 3:30 p.m. contest will be televised by ABC.
Trickett said he knows the offense, and he has witnesses to back validate that claim. The quarterback believes they’re about to debut “400 level stuff, very advanced stuff” inside the Georgia Dome.
“We really do have some continuity as an offense,” Trickett said. “We’re so tight that we’re checking things at the line that only me and the receivers know about. The coaches aren’t even aware.”
It wasn’t that way last season. Tricket originally intended to graduate from Florida State after the fall 2012 semester and transfer to WVU to be a part of spring football. He said he took too many academic hours and fell too far behind in one class, which he ended up failing. He graduated from FSU in the spring of 2013 and arrived at WVU in the summer. Paul Millard won the starting job and the staff wasn’t comfortable enough to feature Trickett until giving him his first start in the fifth game.
Trickett led WVU to a win against then-No. 11 Oklahoma State, but was still limited by what he knew to do with plays before the snap. He’d been trained in Jimbo Fisher’s more rigid offense with the Seminoles and at first stepped lightly with what Holgorsen and Dawson were teaching at WVU.
“When Jimbo calls his play, he wants that play,” Trickett said. “When Dana calls a play, if it’s not a good play, you can change it to whatever you want. I was trained for three years to learn that, so to come here and have it be totally different, it took me a while.”
A week after the win against the Cowboys, the game that also saw Trickett sustain a shoulder injury that eventually required offseason surgery, Trickett struggled. The offense was stagnant early against Baylor and Holgorsen was angry about the problems he was having communicating with Trickett. On third-and-10 on WVU’s second series, Holgorsen switched Trickett and Millard. Millard completed a pass to gain eight yards, so Holgorsen switched them again on third-and-20 on the next series.
Millard played the fourth quarter of the blowout loss. Afterward Holgorsen said he quickly tired of calling plays and giving orders on the sideline that weren’t showing upon the field, which meant Trickett wasn’t processing properly.
“We’re not equipped to keep up at this point in time. Hopefully we get there at some point,” he said.
That time may have finally arrived, oddly enough because Trickett doesn’t necessarily have to follow directions from the sideline. Holgorsen and Dawson have grown to trust Trickett to the point they’ll expect him to, never mind allow him to, make little adjustments he believes he needs to make.
A simple unspoken signal with a receiver, be it a quick look or a subtle hand movement, can set up any one of a handful of routes. It helps that the receiver has been around long enough now to not only understand Trickett’s hints, but to know what area the defense will open and where to run the route.
“Clint’s going to have a lot of leeway,” Dawson sad. “The kid’s a smart kid. He understands the layout of the defense, but the biggest thing is he understands where we want to attack a certain defense. That’s probably the best thing we’ve been doing really. He gets the ball to the weak spot. Every defense has a weak spot. Every one. It doesn’t matter what play.
“The key to playing quarterback is to get the ball out on time to that weak spot. He’s been doing a good job of that, and we’ve got to keep stressing it, but he has a good understanding of the layout and he understands the way the safeties’ movements are and the way linebackers void out areas of the defense and he understands that’s where he needs to attack.”
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.