WVU football: Slaughter learns to deal with his group
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Erik Slaughter is 44 years old going on 24.
"Age," West Virginia's defensive line coach said, "is a mindset."
And mindset is Slaughter's specialty. That much seems crystal clear since he joined the WVU coaching staff in February.
Slaughter, of course, replaced Bill Kirelawich, who went to join Rich Rodriguez at Arizona with Jeff Casteel and David Lockwood, and everyone wants to tell Slaughter how different he is from the guy before him.
That's kind, but it's not entirely accurate. Sure, Slaughter doesn't have the blue vocabulary or the booming voice, but he's still making noise, what with the way actions still speak louder than words.
Just watch Slaughter work. Witness a man wrestling with himself to stay on the side right up until he reaches a limit, drops the whistle and gets into the practice himself.
Never mind how he'll feel the morning after banging into Jorge Wright and Will Clarke.
"I want to show them," he said. "I'm a visual learner. Different guys learn different ways. To me, that's the importance of being a coach. You've got to know how guys learn."
Slaughter sometimes prefers to go hand-to-hand or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his players, to get as close as he can to see who's learning and responding and developing.
He knows some players like positive reinforcement. He knows he needs to talk tough to connect with others. Some players can run through a drill once and grasp it. Others need a coach to walk them through it before it clicks.
"My job is to understand how they learn so I can teach them," said Slaughter, who has been coaching for 23 years and spent the previous three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. "It's pretty easy to see when you're right there with them."
He has his methods off the field, too, and he seems more reserved and calculated than what the Mountaineers may have grown accustomed to the past several years.
Kirelawich was unique coach, with the volume turned up and the targets never spared in front of the onlookers. His players learned to deal with it.
Slaughter learns to deal with his players.
He doesn't really like to make corrections on the field. He wants to find a problem on film and point it out in the meeting room so it doesn't reappear in practice. The audience is smaller in the position meetings. The message is then easier to digest. He doesn't want to embarrass or shame players if he doesn't have to.
"There are lots of different ways to skin a cat and I think our defensive line was good last year with Kirlav, but I've worked with Slaughter for many years and I know we're going to be good with him," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who coached two seasons with Slaughter at Stephen F. Austin and knew Slaughter when he was a high school coach in Texas. "It's all about what a kid responds to and he's good at finding out how they respond."
Slaughter has been tinkering his approach for years and years, back to well before he was a coach. Football is a game Slaughter has known since he was a kid growing up in Hico, Texas. His high school was small and he played all the sports, but was partial to football and basketball. He says he wasn't good at either and said he was the guy on the basketball team who had five fouls and knew how to use them.
He nevertheless ended up at Tarleton State, in Stephenville, Texas.
"I was average," he said. "It was an NAIA school with no scholarships. I was what you'd call the jack-of-all-trades and master of none, but I had a background in football and a background in basketball. Actually, I loved all sports."
He was going to play both sports in college until a knee injury and a painful cartilage tear changed things.
"I came back and ended up playing basketball a couple of years, but I wound up having a child," he said. "I could have kept playing, but when I had a child I went to work. It wasn't like it is now."
Slaughter, married and a father of three, warns against miscasting his role. He admits he has a temper. He says he is capable of speaking at a high volume. There have even been a few words not fit for print. He's also not some lunatic throwing caution to the wind by throwing his body around against kids much younger and stronger.
The negative conversations, the criticisms about performance or effort, those happen, but generally behind closed doors where he can better make his point, which is very different than making an example out of someone.
"I'm a positive person," Slaughter said. "I don't like to be yelled at and degraded. I prefer a pat on the back. I'm going to push them hard to work hard, but I'm going to love them harder."
You thought Kirelawich was old school? He was, for sure, but Slaughter is a throwback to a time most players ought to remember fondly, back when their game was just that.
"We're going to be out there working every day, but there's no rule in football that says we can't have fun while we're doing it," Slaughter said. "I think guys perform better when they have confidence in what they're doing.
"A confident football player is a fast football player and a fast football player makes plays. That's the name of the game."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.