WVU football: Small players have big job in offense
MORGANTOWN - Freshman receiver Jordan Thompson has only three receptions for 8 yards in his first two games for No. 8 West Virginia.
Two of those catches have come from backup quarterback Paul Millard when the games have been out of hand.
"When you're called on, you have to produce and make a big play," Thompson said.
For that reason alone, Coach Dana Holgorsen couldn't be much happier with Thompson. There be more catches, yards and touchdowns, and perhaps they come when as the Mountaineers (2-0) play Saturday's noon home game against Maryland (2-1) at Mountaineer Field (FX). If not, there is no trouble.
"Jordan," Holgorsen said, "has done fine."
WVU beat James Madison last week with Geno Smith passing for 411 yards and five touchdowns, Stedman Bailey scoring three touchdowns on a school-record 13 receptions and Tavon Austin adding 11 receptions for 113 yards and a score.
Yet Holgorsen signed off on Andrew Buie being named the team's offensive player of the week, despite his not scoring or reaching 100 yards rushing or receiving.
The explanation for the award and for Holgorsen's approval of Thompson and Buie is simple: Two of the smallest players the Mountaineers have on the field can block.
"I want someone to block for me the way I block for them," Buie said. "We need each other to make big plays. If no one is blocking for each other, we'll have no offense.
"It's fun to see teammates make big plays off your blocks. It feels good to be a big part of the game when you don't have the ball, but you know you did something to help that play spurt for a big gain."
The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Buie is No. 8 in the Big 12 in all-purpose yards per game (128) and had 135 and 121 yards rushing, receiving and on returns in the first two games. Buie, who lost a fumble and then was injured and couldn't finish the game as a freshman against Maryland last season, had a career-high 80 rushing yards against Marshall. He added a career-high 90 receiving yards against JMU, but also blocked across the field against the Dukes, earning player of the week honors.
The 8.5 yards per carry this season, when he couldn't stay healthy and didn't break a run longer than 18 yards last season, might be a surprise. The nine receptions on routes out of the backfield and into the flat, through the middle or up the sideline could catch people off guard. In high school, he was in a running wing-T offense and played more quarterback and running back than he receiver.
"He was a guy when he came here who was automatically one of the better blockers we had," running backs coach Robert Gillespie said. "Even though he's one of our smaller guys, he's a tough guy."
Buie blindsided and blasted a Marshall defender in the first game to keep him away from Smith, but did nothing as explosive against JMU.
He instead knocked back pass rushers going after his quarterback in the pocket or on the move. He ran through holes before running back Shawne Alston and swept back across the line of scrimmage to take out a defensive end who was chasing Alston. He got out on the perimeter to spring receivers and stood up opponents on punt returns.
At the end of the game, he had teammates and coaches talking about things they usually reserve for offensive linemen.
"He had five or six knockdowns, so he's becoming more versatile," Holgorsen said. "What you guys see is a guy that catches the balls in the flats, but from a protection standpoint and from a run-blocking standpoint, he's a powerful kid that puts his body in danger sometimes because he plays so hard and plays so physical."
Opportunities for the 5-7, 175-pound Thompson are more limited. The Mountaineers like to use their inside receivers, but Austin is the premier option in the offense. WVU can use four receivers, which gets Thompson on the field. Still, the offense has been so good with Alston and Buie in the backfield, and Buie has been such a good receiver in that set, that the three-receiver sets have been more popular.
Thompson has still been productive, despite modest stats, because he has served a purpose on the perimeter runs and screen passes. He doesn't rock people like Buie has, but he doesn't have to. WVU wants Thompson to cover up opponents and give teammates as much time as they need to make a play.
It's how WVU does so well with yardage after the reception. On Bailey's first touchdown against JMU, Thompson jostled with a defensive back and kept him from getting to Bailey as Bailey found a lane and ran through it and into the end zone.
"He's very tough and he's got a very big heart," Bailey said. "He's definitely considered a small guy and he doesn't have a big frame, but blocking is all about effort and he does a good job doing all he can to block bigger guys - and just about everybody on the field is bigger than Jordan is. The key to it is just to get in the way."
Thompson follows a motto delivered by receivers coach and offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson: Lose late.
"When you're blocking, eventually you're going to lose," Thompson said. "Regardless of how you do it, you're eventually going to lose. You have to stick with them and shadow them and stay between them and the ballcarrier for as long as you can and keep fighting. You have to have an internal clock. It could take 5 seconds, but you should be able to keep fighting with the defender. The smallest block can be the biggest part of a play."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.