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WVU football: Geno Smith still not a running QB

MORGANTOWN - The box score shows quarterback Geno Smith ran the ball eight times for a career-high 65 yards in West Virginia's season-opening win against Marshall.

That, believe it or not, rubs Smith the wrong way.

"People want to say I'm some sort of dual-threat now, but I'm not," he said. "I'm not a running threat."

Only half of that is true. Allow the Mountaineers to explain.

One of Smith's carries was a play that belonged on the blooper reel, but ended up on the highlight reel. His 28-yard touchdown run was supposed to be a handoff to running back Andrew Buie, but Buie missed the play call. Smith handed the ball to air and had to run. That it became a touchdown was merely an accident.

Another carry should have been a highlight, but became a blooper when a quarterback sneak on fourth-and-goal from Marshall's 3-yard line came up a yard short.

The other six times Smith ran were his decisions. He gained 37 yards. WVU isn't making Smith run the ball but Smith is making defenses respect his legs. The next test is Saturday, when the fifth-ranked Mountaineers (1-0) play FCS No. 5 James Madison (2-0) at 4:30 p.m. at FedEx Field, Landover, Md.

The game will be televised by Root Sports.

"We're going to utilize that in the future to at least force the defense to acknowledge the quarterback will run the ball if he gets out of the pocket," quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital said.

It sounds minor, but it could have a major impact. Smith's improvised runs assisted the offense simply because they moved the ball. He gained three yards, and had a look at the end zone, on a second-and-goal run. He picked up eight, seven and five yards on first-and-10 and later 12 yards on first-and-15. It helped the offense convert 5 of 8 third downs.

A year ago, WVU struggled on third down because it was frequently third-and-long. That was addressed in the offseason by having Smith study NFL quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers who found a way to stare into a bad passing play and turn it into a positive running play.

That wasn't part of Smith's plans in 2011.

"When we got ready for him last year, we said, 'Look, he's not going to run it. He wants to throw it,'" said co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who was Pitt's coordinator in 2011. "We wanted our defense to play him consistently and stop the pass because we knew he would look to throw first and he wouldn't run it."

That's changing and that excites the Mountaineers. Coach Dana Holgorsen's offense puts a lot of stress on defenses as it is, but Smith's willingness and ability to run only adds to the problems the Mountaineers present.

"It makes people think twice about rushing guys up the field hard and makes people think twice about dropping guys really, really deep in pass protection," Holgorsen said. "If they're really deep in pass protection, they better have a spy on him."

WVU likes its chances, no matter the defensive tactic.

Defenses sometimes defend Holgorsen's offense with pressure to disrupt a quarterback's comfort and timing. Holgorsen hasn't had a quarterback quite as quick or athletic as Smith, so defenses used to believe the quarterback wouldn't run if the pressure became too disorganized. Four players in a five-player rush could end up on the left side of the field and the defense knew the quarterback wouldn't run out through the right side.

"Defenses didn't really care about keeping the pocket contained when they'd have an outside pass rush," offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "With Geno, you better contain the pocket. That takes away a lot of twisting defenses can do with the pass rush because you've got to have your outside guys contain Geno. If he gets outside the pocket, it's not a dead play. He's got a chance to make a big play."

If defenses don't pressure, they give Smith and his receivers time to run routes as they desire. Many defenses keep their safeties on top of the coverage so they don't get beat by long passes or short throws and big runs after the reception.

If they're far back, Smith has the time to decide to run with the ball - or throw on the run. Patterson said Smith's accuracy on the move is special.

"He places the football where he wants," Patterson said. "That's what separates the great ones from the very good ones. It just takes away the defense's aggressiveness. You can't chase him and leave one of his receivers open because he can make that throw to make a big play."

A defense could maintain its pass rush and pass coverage by devoting one player to spy on Smith. Holgorsen has never seen that against his offense. He smiled at the idea, while Smith all but discouraged it.

"It takes a guy out of coverage, or maybe a guy off of the front four on the defensive line, which is probably going to hurt them more than the threat of me running the ball," he said.

Overlooked in all of this is Smith's confidence in his body above his abilities. Now a senior, he hadn't had a complete offseason since arriving at WVU in 2009. Smith injured his left foot before his freshman and sophomore seasons, which restricted his summer workouts both years. He had surgery on the foot after his sophomore season that affected him throughout winter conditioning and limited him in his first spring practice with Holgorsen.

Smith has been healthy ever since, though, and finally did the full winter, spring and summer circuit before a season. Now 6 feet, 3 inches tall and 225 pounds, he says he's faster and stronger than ever before.

"That's huge," he said. "Look at it. Guys all over the country, aside from a few guys who get injured like me, are all working extremely hard.

"A lot of what I did before, like Coach Holgorsen has said, was based on talent alone. I wasn't physically in shape most of the time.

"My arm was in shape because all I could pretty much do was throw. I couldn't really be on my feet that much. I think the fact I had an offseason to work on my body and tone and get in shape - football shape as well as conditioning shape - has done worlds for me."

 


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