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WVU football: Offense will improve as season nears

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The weather was awful and the audience was lukecold on an afternoon that belonged in the fall and not for Saturday's annual spring game.

The highly hyped West Virginia offense was corrupted throughout the Gold-Blue Game by the mostly mysterious defense.

That, coupled with the final score - a 43-34 win for the defenders in blue - sent the 10,000 or so walking out of Mountaineer Field and into the interminable summer wondering exactly what to think about what they'd seen.

After all, wasn't the offense, the one that torched Clemson for nine touchdowns in the Orange Bowl, back and alleged to be better? Wasn't that defense new and unfamiliar and only a fraction of what it's supposed to be come Sept. 1 and the season-opener against Marshall?

Believe it or not, it was a pretty good day for the Mountaineers. The players and the coaches part ways for a while and enter a rare period of solitude, but they have plenty to think about now.

Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense, congratulated to the border of coddled since the Orange Bowl, has rendezvoused with reality. The defense, still in its infancy and still an uncertainty, has plenty of momentum to sustain through what comes next.

That's important.

Now, to be fair, the game and the result deserve some elaboration. WVU's offense looked good early when it was in the form it figures to take onto the field most Saturday's in the fall. Those Mountaineers also were 6-for-6 in the red zone with four touchdowns. That statistic, more than any other, will define success for the offense and the defense in the Big 12.

There were too many drops, stalls and turnovers (four) - and the defense turned the offense over 40 times in 12 spring practices in pads, so that's a credit to the defense.

And that defense? Well, it was almost clairvoyant at times and, in the midst of the 15th and final practice, knew many of the offense's watered-down play calls and checks. Yet it also had five sacks and seven stops and did a good job confusing the offense.  

Really, it was the byproduct of seeing WVU's offense throughout the spring.

The defense was familiar, but also improved and Holgorsen has been saying for more than a week now that the defense is surging and getting the better of the offense.

Things will change, though, and the biggest change will be that the offense will become better because it's going to look different the next time you see it. Here's a raw truth about college football in the spring:

"We're playing with a whole bunch of people who won't be playing in games," Holgorsen said. "The guys in there? If we're playing with them in the fall, we're not going to win."

No need to name names, but check out a box score, remember how the quality of play deteriorated after a certain point, witness an offensive line with tackles at guards and guards at tackle and center and you know what he means.

Sometimes in the spring you shake the tree and a treat falls into your lap, sometimes a kid, like a Jordan Thompson, is as good as everyone hoped, but WVU already had offensive talent and quality trumps quantity.

"There's a collection of about 16 people that are actually going to play in a game," Holgorsen said. "We've got an idea who probably 14 of them are I think once we figure out who the other two are, we'll be all right offensively."

This is pretty easy. WVU has Geno Smith at quarterback and it's too much to expect a freshman offensive lineman to arrive in the summer and be ready to play. The Mountaineers need numbers at running back and would welcome an impact at the receiver.

Freshman running backs Roshard Burney (5-10, 205 pounds) and Torry Clayton (5-10, 190) have a chance to play behind Andrew Buie, Shawne Alston and, ideally, Dustin Garrison, who is pleased with his recovery from a torn ACL. Those three veterans are the only backs on scholarship and the spring didn't really add to the depth.

WVU has a number of receivers and offensive coordinator/receivers coach Shannon Dawson can live with who he has, as could just about every peer if given Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. But that's just one inside and one outside receiver position and WVU will use three or four receivers all the time and rely on backups quite a bit.

Ryan Nehlen and Ivan McCartney, when he was healthy, were good enough on the outside in the spring and J. D. Woods and Thompson impressed on the inside. Six possibilities arrive in the summer and they're big (6-7 Will Johnson), small (5-10 Darreal Joyner) and intriguing (5-11 high school quarterback Travares Copeland).   

And then there's the regarded 6-2 Deontay McManus, who WVU thinks could play and play well either inside or outside. His flexibility only helps.

"We've already, through the recruiting process and after signing day, sat down and figured out where kids are going to fit," Dawson said. "You never know how kids are going to perform. But, obviously, some guys need to come in and play.

"Everyone will get a chance, but you really don't know until they get here. Some kids are going to be more mature and more ready for the college game than other kids."

Again, not much room because the Mountaineers have such a solid core and that extends to what the offense does. They have so many people back or in place and they say that what they do is so simple to learn that there doesn't seem to be much more to add or adjust.

"Really and truly, we're not into adding stuff and I don't think we'll add anything," Dawson said. "I think we'll just get better at what we do. We always take the summer to evaluate and we talk to coaches we trust around the nation. If we do see something we think is good, we'll definitely consider it."

With what Holgorsen and Dawson have, why not? They'll spend the summer going to camps and clinics to speak and to listen and the mind will race.

When Holgorsen was at Oklahoma State, he had some free time and dreamed up the three-back diamond formation. Two years earlier, Holgorsen learned the hot potato pass play from the head coach of the Division II Colorado School of Mines, and Austin and Smith made it famous in the Orange Bowl.

"We'll probably come up with some more wrinkles," Holgorsen said. "You never know when ideas are going to pop up in your head. There's all kinds of crazy stuff going on up here. You never know what's going to surface."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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