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WVU offense gets workout from Casteel's defense

MORGANTOWN -- With the respect due to the many thousands of people who will be here tonight for the annual Gold-Blue Game at Mountaineer Field, Dana Holgorsen is going to try to treat this experience more like the 15th and final spring practice than the first game, or even his first occasion to show off his vaunted offense.

"You get into the routine of practicing and guys get tired of it, which is human nature, but when you get a lively event with people in the stands, they'll probably get pretty cranked up for it," said the first-year offensive coordinator and head coach-in-waiting. "But having people in the stands shouldn't affect what we do. It's still about knowing what your assignment is and trying to get a little better at your technique."

The day will nevertheless feature some extravagances, beginning with the inaugural Mountaineer Gear Sale from 2-6 p.m. at the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility. A panel of former WVU football coaches begins at 4 p.m. at Waterfront Place Hotel. The Davisson Brothers perform a free concert at in the K-4 parking lot on the west side of Milan Puskar Stadium at 5:30 p.m. and the Old Timers' Game starts at 7 p.m.

That exhibition precedes the Gold-Blue Game, which, whenever it begins - the estimate is 7:45 - will see the final installment of a spring in which Holgorsen has gotten to know his system and personnel by getting to know defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and his system and personnel.

And vice versa.

The conclusion at the end? There are differences and one does things the other won't see very often during the season, but one also is good for the other.

"(Casteel's) scheme is good against the spread, no question," Holgorsen said. "That's probably why he obsesses over making sure his scheme is good against power football, which he proved it is last year. It doesn't matter what type of offense you run. That defense is equipped to be able to stop it as long as the personnel holds up."

Casteel is overseeing auditions for seven starters as well as critical depth across the field. Perhaps he hasn't gotten the ideal number of looks at running pays or traditional under-center sets with tight ends, but he has seen his defense stressed and forced to adapt to succeed.

"They're like a two-minute drill from the first series to the last and they're able to run the football out of it and able to get the ball out quickly and you have to chase people around," Casteel said. "The biggest difference is these guys want to throw it maybe a little bit more than other people who use a spread."

Amid the regular discussions about how the schemes and the schemers were different and suggestions one might not adequately prepare the other before preseason camp and the development of scout teams comes one realization.

They're actually very much alike.

Holgorsen's spread offense is unique in some ways, but like all the rest in one basic theory. The ball has to be with a player who is skilled and dangerous when given space. Football is like basketball in that regard because the offense is trying to identify and isolate matchups where it has an advantage over the defense.

A power forward posting up a shooting guard or point guard backing it out to dribble past a center is no different than a running back running a drag route against a safety or a slot receiver slanting inside against a linebacker.

Casteel has counters, though, with his personnel. His defensive linemen are quick off the snap and to the ball. His linebackers may be small, but they get to the ball in a hurry. He has one long and tall safety, but two who are fast and cover a lot of ground in the secondary, as well as near the line of scrimmage.

Basically, his defensive players are good in space because offenses have required that the past few years. Tonight will produce more moments like that.

"That's the game, but that's what I've liked about our kids," Casteel said. "We're playing our base stuff and we have some kids out there in mismatches, but those kids have done a really good job being able to handle that. For our guys, it's been really good to see where weaknesses are. That's the best way to know if you can play. You have to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and overcome those weaknesses."

In truth, Holgorsen is no stranger to the 3-3-5 stack, though Casteel's version has been tailored through the years to hit his preferences. Teams in the Big 12 and the southwest use the formation or feature it in packages and situations, which is a credit to how it counters the proliferation of the spread offense better than most alternatives.

What he's witnessed this spring is an up-close explanation for why Casteel has been so successful through the years. The defense has given the offense trouble with the blend of speed across the field, disturbing angles on pass rushes and defenders who simply aren't where the offense predicts they will be.  

Holgorsen's offense hopes to reduce the interceptions and increase the productivity seen in the first two scrimmages against a defense designed to stop his spread.

"When you look out there and there are seven, eight bodies out there running around at a very fast rate, it makes it hard for the quarterback to find open people," Holgorsen said. "Then when they give you five people in the box to run the ball and you hand it off and their linebackers are shooting gaps and blowing stuff up, it becomes discouraging."

*  *  *

FULLBACK RYAN Clarke, who was held out of recent practices with a right knee injury, had surgery Wednesday to repair a meniscus tear. He won't play tonight.

The junior was hurt in the team's first scrimmage April 16 and tried to practice afterward, but was eventually made to sit and undergo evaluation. The arthroscopic procedure should sideline him a few weeks and not interfere with his participation in preseason camp in August.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. 


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