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WVU football: Players learning, buying in this spring

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- He is barely three months removed from his second season as a college football head coach, one that ended with the worst record Dana Holgorsen has experienced since Texas Tech also finished 7-6 in 2000.

That was the start of his Division I coaching career. This is still very much the start for him running his own program. What he learned last season is what's being put to use during spring football for Holgorsen and his third West Virginia team.

"That we're not a whole lot different than the rest of the people in the Big 12," Holgorsen said after the sixth of WVU's 15 spring practices. "There were nine bowl teams in the Big 12 and seven of them were 7-5, so the reality of the situation is we're in a conference that has a whole lot of parity and everybody better understand that."

Actually, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU and WVU finished the regular season 7-5 and the Cowboys, Bears and Red Raiders won their bowl games while the Horned Frogs and Mountaineers lost their bowl games. Texas finished the regular season 8-4 and won its bowl game and Iowa State finished 6-6 and lost its bowl game.

To Holgorsen's point, though, seven of the nine bowl-eligible teams in the 10-team conference finished 7-5 or within a game of that. Only Texas and Iowa State are likely to start the same quarterback in the 2013 season opener that they started in the bowl game. Teams throughout the conference are now coping with major losses on offense, defense or both.

Holgorsen knows equality might be something the Mountaineers have to get used to as they get settled in their new conference.

"We have to be incredibly comfortable with all three of our schemes, which we are, and we have to coach them at a high level and we have to demand that our team buys into what they're saying," Holgorsen said. "We have a program full of guys that are ready to step up and play when they are ready to step up, like our staff right now."

The spring is as much about the coaches Holgorsen leads in meeting rooms as it is the players those coaches lead on the field. There are nine assistant coaches on a college team. Only one of Holgorsen's nine is doing the same thing he did last season and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter, perhaps not surprisingly, is in charge of the group that is drawing arguably the strongest reviews so far.

Everyone else is either one of the five coaches Holgorsen hired in the offseason or one of the three who returned, though to a new role.

"I like our staff cohesion, and I like what we are doing on all three sides," Holgorsen said. "I like the fact that the players are buying in. It doesn't mean that we're going to win any games. It means that everyone needs to understand what the challenges are and not take anything for granted."

Holgorsen is clear that when he references "everyone," whether in regard to recognizing the closeness of the league or the challenges the Big 12 presents, he means himself, his assistants and his coaches. It is here where everyone benefits from Holgorsen's practice structure.

Spring football and the formative stage of preseason camp is broken down into three-day periods of installation.

After the third day is complete, the Mountaineers go back to the first day and repeat that day's lessons and add a little more. The increasingly detailed cycle develops familiarity before confidence and then expertise, and that's particularly important for a WVU team that has as many unknowns as this one.

"Offensively, we're so inexperienced, I don't know where to start," he said. "We've got a bunch of guys who make plays and make a mistake."

The Mountaineers are searching at their own pace for a quarterback, a center, two offensive guards and an entirely new set of starting receivers. Quarterbacks coach Shannon Dawson coached receivers last season. He's also the coordinator in charge of not only all the new parts and the things they can handle, but of two new assistants and what they know and prefer.

Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway was at Wake Forest the last two seasons and offensive line coach Ron Crook was at Stanford the last two seasons. Galloway is familiar with the Mountaineers because he was the receivers coach in 2008-10, but Crook coached tight ends and offensive tackles for the Cardinal, who do things much differently than WVU.

The changes on defense may be more extreme. Slaughter remains, but linebackers coach Keith Patterson is now the defensive coordinator after sharing the job with Joe DeForest last year. DeForest is no longer involved with the defense and the former safeties coach is now running special teams. Former East Carolina defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell was hired to coach cornerbacks and Tony Gibson, another former WVU assistant, is now back coaching safeties.

Patterson is adjusting the defense to his preferences as they fit the personnel, but the personnel is new, too, with four starters gone from last year's disastrous defense and many new faces in place and ready to arrive over the summer.

Holgorsen believes in Patterson's potential to make the repairs and improvements that are required because, as he said and as everybody learned, "it's hard to play defense in the Big 12."

"I have always loved what he's done defensively - that's the reason I hired him from a scheme standpoint," Holgorsen said. "There were a couple of different philosophies last year, but now there is obviously one voice, there is one scheme, and that is what we want to do. The continuity of the staff and what we are doing schematically and with everybody being on the same page, you see a lot of people that are in a position to make plays."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at or 304-319-1142. His blog is at


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