Mountaineer Gameday: Coach always thinking of ways to evolve offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The goal of Dana Holgorsen's offense is to play fast and the value is that defenses can't keep up effectively.
The opposition is forced to keep tired players who are pressed into mismatches on the field or risk substituting and watching West Virginia snap the ball before the defense gets set.
The goal of Dana Holgorsen's career is to go fast, too, and the value again is that defenses can't keep up schematically. Holgorsen is going to adjust his offense in such a way that it's broad enough to adapt to the personnel, but focused enough to still do what it does best.
"The evolution of the offense, from the plays to the experimentation to trying specific things, is not going to stop any time soon," he said. "We're going to keep working as we go."
It's happening right now at WVU and if you look close enough, you'll see it at Mountaineer Field on Saturday when the eighth-ranked Mountaineers (2-0) play host to Maryland (2-1) at noon (FX telecast).
WVU will line up with a running back to both sides of quarterback Geno Smith and then one behind him. That's the diamond formation Holgorsen more or less invented out of "sheer boredom" during the offseason before his 2010 season at Oklahoma State.
Part of the plan was to create a crowd at the line of scrimmage - five offensive linemen and four teammates in the backfield - and isolate receivers on the outside. If a defense wanted to focus on the front, the receivers had an advantage. If a defense wanted to worry about the receivers, the running game was available.
But that's old. What's new now are the new ways the Mountaineers are learning to use the diamond.
Shawne Alston is the starting running back, though at 230 or so pounds, he's 30 or 40 or 50 pounds bigger than most of Holgorsen's backs in the past. He's sometimes surrounded by similarly large bodies, like Ryan Clarke or Donovan Miles, but also by the smaller Andrew Buie.
The 5-foot-9, 195-pound Buie is averaging 8.5 yards across 14 carries this season, but can block like a fullback and he can run routes and catch passes like a receiver. The Mountaineers can go in a variety of directions and Holgorsen knows it.
"It's very valuable to have a guy who can do all that stuff," he said. "Shawne is a little limited in the passing game from a receiving standpoint because he's a big, physical kind of guy, but that's probably why, when you look back at the history of our players, we've always had guys like Buie who can do all that stuff."
Yet Alston is a weapon, too. He's feet tall and can power through people, but he has a knack to run the inside and outside zone plays the Mountaineers like. He also wears down a defense and becomes harder to tackle the faster the offense plays and the less time it allows defenders to recover.
There's now a place for both.
"Shawne's our starter and he's a great player, but we need a variety of players," Holgorsen said. "That's why, when you look at the people we're recruiting from a recruiting standpoint, we're recruiting a lot of different body types, the kind of guys who can bring different tools to the table."
Or you can look at the backfield today, past even Buie and Alston and Clarke and Miles. WVU's newest feature is former George Washington High tight end Cody Clay.
He's been asked to work as an offensive lineman and as an inside receiver with the Mountaineers, but now, in his redshirt freshman year, he's a 6-3, 255-pound blocking running back.
He spends time meeting with the offensive linemen and the running backs and he defies a true label.
"I think people have a perception that we don't use a tight end when we actually do," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "We put him in a three-point stance on the line and we line him up in the backfield. It adds another element and lets us play fast. When you have him in the backfield and you go no huddle you can keep him as a tight end.
"We're trying to find as many ways to take advantage of our personnel. That's the one thing that's fun about coaching in this offense. Dana wants the offense to change and adjust to the personnel we have."
The offense itself doesn't change much. As far back as his playing days at Iowa Wesleyan for Hal Mumme all the way to today, it's mostly the same, though Holgorsen's freshest and most accurate memories come from his eight years at Texas Tech with coach, and Mumme protege, Mike Leach.
The routes are basically the same and the playbook is still thin bordering on non-existent. Tempo is important and mismatches matter. But who runs the routes and memorizes the plays and hurries the tempo and makes the mismatches has changed.
WVU is recruiting tight ends like Clay and freshman Will Johnson and will play them as a tight end like Clay or as an inside receiver, like the Mountaineers plan to do with the 6-7 Johnson after his redshirt year. Don't believe in the idea of a tall inside receiver? You missed 6-4 Dante Campbell catch a 4-yard touchdown pass against JMU.
Yet there's still a stage for smaller guys like Tavon Austin and Jordan Thompson, though they must still block like they're bigger.
Perhaps most intriguing, though, is the offense's marquee position. Holgorsen has long been affiliated with quarterbacks. What Smith is doing this season is, according to quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital, better than Holgorsen's most famed pupils, Houston's Case Keenum and Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden.
Look at the recruiting, though, and see the Mountaineers with a 2013 commitment from a dual-threat quarterback in Chavas Rawlings and an offer out and a strong push for arguably the top-ranked dual threat quarterback in 2014, D.J. Gillins.
Can't happen? Look not at the problems the pocket-passing Smith is giving teams with his mobility, but at Texas A&M. The Aggies are coached by Kevin Sumlin, who hired Holgorsen at Houston. Sumlin's offensive coordinator is Kliff Kingsbury, who played for Holgorsen at Texas Tech and was his quality control assistant at Houston. Texas A&M is starting a dual threat quarterback this season running a familiar form of the Air Raid offense.
WVU is intrigued by Smith's movement and how it affects opposing defenses and the Mountaineers don't want the possibilities to automatically end when Smith departs and is replaced by the more stationary Ford Childress or Paul Millard.
If they can get another mover, they can shake up college football again.
"We've never had really a running quarterback in the past," WVU offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. "It may change what other teams try to do, but we're not going to change what we do. We'll allow him freedom to make plays with his feet.
"We won't sit there and tell him not to do that, but on the same hand, we've got to be careful about him running the ball because you don't want your quarterbacks getting hit because we're always going to throw the ball first."