WVU football: Smith effective under center
MORGANTOWN - No. 9 West Virginia can thank new defensive assistant Keith Patterson for a new offensive wrinkle.
Quarterback Geno Smith took a handful of snaps from under center in the season-opening win against Marshall, and plans to do that a lot more this season, including Saturday's 4:30 p.m. game against FCS No. 5 James Madison (2-0) at FedEx Field.
"The offensive coaches, we view football through offensive eyes," West Virginia offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "A lot of times we get with the defensive coaches and throw ideas around. I remember sitting in a room talking to K.P. and asking him, 'Look, is going under center harder on a defense?'"
Patterson, who was hired in February in part because of his success defending WVU last season as the defensive coordinator at Pitt, enlightened Dawson and second-year WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen.
"I've studied Dana's offense for a long time and one thing I told him was that I thought Geno and the offense would be very effective - even more effective - under center," Patterson said. "In my opinion, as a defense, I want the quarterback to have to wait for the ball when it's snapped.
"If you have an offset back to the right, to me, there's a lot of time spent waiting for the ball. There's no direct hit."
The Mountaineers (1-0) like the shotgun because Smith can better survey the defense when he starts off several steps behind the line of scrimmage. It gives him a head start because a snap from under center precedes a multi-step drop and the time it requires as Smith reads the defense.
Patterson said the Mountaineers could run the ball better from under center because they'd be able to spring 6-foot, 235-pound running back Shawne Alston on the defense quicker.
"When you have an offset back to the side in the shotgun, it's harder for the running back standing next to the quarterback to get the ball and, to me, generate momentum toward the line of scrimmage," Patterson said.
"Now move the quarterback under center and take the ball and hand it right away to No. 20. That is a completely different deal.
"You snap it, turn and hand it to him and he's right on top of you."
Patterson disarmed the idea that a running back in the shotgun could get downhill and behind his shoulder pads because he had a runway toward the line of scrimmage. He highlighted the time needed to get the ball to the quarterback in the shotgun and then to the running back, actually giving the defense an advantage.
"I'm telling you, since Rich Rodriguez was here, we studied and then completely changed everything, from the way I key defensively with linebackers to anything I was going to do to deal with the offense," Patterson said.
When Todd Graham left WVU as its co-defensive coordinator to become Tulsa's defensive coordinator in 2003, Patterson joined the Tulsa staff as the linebackers coach. Patterson remained with the Golden Hurricanes through 2010, the final five years as the co-defensive coordinator.
Graham knew the WVU offense and became the Tulsa coach in 2007, after a season as the Rice coach. He hired WVU's offensive line coach, Herb Hand, as his co-offensive coordinator in 2007. Patterson was inclined to change the way his defenses read and reacted to shotgun running attacks.
"Because of the misdirection," he said. "For example, if you're looking at a back going one way and all of a sudden the two guards are pulling and going the other way, you're in trouble. But because of the shotgun, we changed what we keyed on to make plays."
Patterson won't share the details, but what the offensive linemen do matters. Over the years other defenses learned to do the same to better contest shotgun running games.
"Going under center changes all the keys again," he said.
Holgorsen has operated from under center more than his reputation reflects. His teams at Texas Tech and Houston could do it, though he didn't do it much during his season at Oklahoma State in 2010 and was rarely under center last year at WVU.
Cowboys quarterback Brandon Weeden broke a thumb early in 2010 and couldn't comfortably take the sharp snaps under center. Oklahoma State did most of its work from the shotgun and Holgorsen preferred that style with his first WVU team.
"Looking back, last year it would have probably been beneficial if we did it a little more than we did," Holgorsen said. "Geno's good at it."
WVU ran notable plays from under center against Marshall, beginning with a game-opening reverse to Tavon Austin and all three plays the first time the offense was inside the Marshall 10-yard line. That included Alston's short touchdown run. WVU thinks going under center will most help short-yardage and goal-line plays.
"When the quarterback is under center, you have greater vision," running back Andrew Buie said. "Geno's not standing right in front of you or right next to you when he gets the snap. The defense has more to look at, too."
Yet the Mountaineers proved capable of passing from under center, too. Smith misfired on a play-action pass intended for a wide-open Stedman Bailey before Alston's score. Smith and backup Paul Millard completed short fade route touchdown passes that started under center.
"The snap gets into Geno's hands quick, which means he's getting it out of his hands faster," Dawson said. "It works really well for play-action and for our quick game, which is a lot of what we do. It's stuff Geno's good at, so we like that."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.