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WVU coach, QB have system of communication



MORGANTOWN - So much information passes between Dana Holgorsen and Geno Smith in the brief time between the end of one play and the start of the next that sometimes West Virginia's coach and quarterback have to get started early.

Smith completed a 72-yard pass to Tavon Austin last week against LSU, and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said when the Mountaineers watched the play on film, they saw Smith connect with Holgorsen before the Tigers could tackle Austin.  

"Geno had his eyes on the sideline the whole time," Spatival said. "Maybe Dana wanted tempo, maybe Dana wanted to slow down, but they started communicating right away."

No matter when it begins, Holgorsen and Smith have a constant conversation before each play in the no-huddle offense.

"There's a whole bunch of non-verbal communication and signals through body language and through stares," Holgorsen said.

"A lot of hand gestures and a lot of faces being made from him to me," Smith said.

Through it all, Holgorsen tells Smith if he wants him to hurry or to play at a normal pace. Then comes the play call, the formation and the personnel in rapid succession. Smith then shares it with his teammates.

Sometimes Holgorsen will scan the field and amend something. Smith has been taught to always look back one last time, but sometimes he needs Holgorsen to yell at him or running backs coach Robert Gillespie to run and jump around to get Smith's attention.

"It's not that hard," Smith said. "That's the key to it actually. It's simple. He makes it simple. It's something that's been going on for 10 years and something that pretty much always works. It's my job to get the right signals and make sure everyone is communicating and on the same page."

Holgorsen said Smith is good at that and getting better.

Spavital, who was Holgorsen's graduate assistant at Oklahoma State last season, said Smith is ahead of where Brandon Weeden was at Oklahoma State. Weeden needed five full games before he figured out things like Smith already has.

Smith has help, too.

The coaches study the receivers and rank them based on their ability to communicate with Smith. Those rankings have a lot to do with playing time.

Smith's familiarity with Tavon Austin and Smith's high school teammates, Stedman Bailey and Ivan McCartney, has a lot to do with why they've played so much an caught so many passes.

"It's not something you can just take a class on," Holgorsen said.

Even if it was and Holgorsen was the professor and Smith the pupil, the lessons would constantly change. The Mountaineers know opponents study the signals and try to decipher what WVU is doing. The offense has to make changes that protect their messages, but can't confuse Smith or cause him to confuse his teammates.

"You change them up and then you'll have something funny happen," Spavital said. "Geno may fix his shoulder pads and then a kid runs a different route, but Geno was just fixing his shoulder pads. There is some miscommunication, but the one thing we tell them all the time is to be real clear."

That mans no movements that may seem harmless, but could be hazardous. Smith could innocently tug on his facemask, but that might mean something to a teammate. Smith might look over at the sideline and see nothing he recognizes, even though he sees Holgorsen losing his patience.

"I can get aggravated, but if I'm getting aggravated he probably needs to figure out why," Holgorsen said.

Smith said he's getting there because he spends a lot of time with Holgorsen and Spavital. If they're not watching film or getting through practice, they're at the Puskar Center doing normal stuff.

"Sometimes we're not even talking about football. We're just hanging out," Smith said. "You've just got to know him. From practicing hundreds of times and him getting after me, I just know what he wants and expects from me. I can tell how he's feeling and what he wants me to do."

Holgorsen actively participates in practice, where the execution of the communication is as important as the execution of the play.

If the coach is calling the plays in practice, then Holgorsen is getting reps with Smith like Smith gets reps with his receivers. If the Mountaineers practice a play so much in practice that it's easy in a game, the same should be said of the way Holgorsen works with Smith.

"It's the same way every day," Holgorsen said. "Sometimes I do something different and he won't understand it and he just sits there and stares. I'll do it again and he'll go, 'Oh, yeah. Got it.'

"But if I make it very cut and dry and plain as day, everyone in the stands can figure out what the play is. We've got a lot of different ways to communicate and a lot of different signals that are just between him and me and nobody else."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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