WVU football: Running game gets makeover
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- WVU's greatest depth of talent is at running back, which became clear through the spring football practices that will culminate with Saturday's Gold-Blue Game.
Just as clearly, the most clandestine part of the spring has been that running game.
The public will get its first glance at 2 p.m. Saturday at Mountaineer Field. Understandable attention will be given to the running backs and the offense's fusion with new offensive line coach Ron Crook, hired in February after working the last two years at Stanford.
"His perspective on offensive line play coming from Stanford has opened my eyes to a lot of things," said offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson, who knows as well as anyone the Mountaineers move the ball very differently than the Cardinal. "That's never going to be us. We can all sit here and honestly say that. But you can take bits and pieces."
In the last two seasons with Coach Dana Holgorsen, WVU had 107 more snaps than Stanford because WVU plays faster and because WVU played from behind so often last season. Stanford nevertheless has 181 more running plays the past two seasons with Crook as the offensive tackles/tight ends coach.
The Cardinal has also protected the quarterback much better, allowing slightly more sacks the last two seasons (30) than WVU did in just 2011 (26), while succeeding more often running the ball in short-yardage and red zone situations.
Those are two areas where the Mountaineers want to be more efficient to better enable their offense, but also protect their defense.
Stanford rushed for 44 touchdowns on 191 red-zone carries the last two seasons (23 percent). WVU managed 39 touchdowns on 179 red-zone carries (22 percent).
On 76 third-and-short carries the last two seasons, Stanford ran for the first down 52 times (68 percent). West Virginia produced 37 first downs on 70 third-and-short carries (53 percent).
The Mountaineers aren't solely concerned with adding the plays the Cardinal used. They're more interested in incorporating the ways Stanford succeeded.
"They're just tough and they grind you down," Dawson said. "I think there are certain segments of the game where if you don't have that toughness, you're going to get beat. Short-yardage situations, when you're running the clock out at the end of the game, you've just got to be able to run the ball effectively when the other team knows you're going to run the football."
Dawson said that's been "one of our biggest problems for a while," and that Crook's addition should help fix that. If the first 13 practices were any indication, the players seem to believe the change will happen in 2013.
"Some of it is just downhill, try-and-stop-us football, like how it used to be," junior Andrew Buie said. "I feel that's how your running game should be. You shouldn't have to disguise it, make it for the whole world where, 'We may be throwing the ball, but we may run the ball.'
"It's, 'All right, we're going to run the ball. Line up and stop it.' I feel like that's the mentality we're starting to take on."
Part of that is because of the running backs. The Mountaineers are in the rare situation where they have the returning rusher from the 2011 season and the 2012 season, though in different jerseys. Dustin Garrison, who led WVU with 742 yards in 2011 before tearing his ACL and battling that all of last season, is alongside Buie, who was tops in 2012 with 851 yards.
The similarly capable, similarly sized Buie (5-foot-9, 190 pounds) and Garrison (5-8, 185) make room for junior college transfer Dreamius Smith (5-11, 225). He had 982 yards and averaged 8.2 yards per carry last season at Butler Community College. His 17 touchdowns in 2012 trumps the combined career total of Buie (eight) and Garrison (eight).
"Each runner is going to get you his own style, just like we all carry the ball our own, different way," Buie said. "It's not like you get a back and he's good and then there's a drop-off and then there's another drop-off. I don't feel like across the board there's much of a drop-off between the three. We've got three quality starting backs and going back-to-back-to-back is going to be tough on a defense."
The Mountaineers do not boast the same past productivity on the offensive line, but it's not a terrible time to find two guards and a center when everyone on the line is learning new ways from a new coach. Though it will change as Crook narrows his pool of players and gets closer to the start of the season, right now the new ways seem to be more about attitude than design.
"It's the same plays," Buie said. "Honestly."
The difference is in how the Mountaineers intend to run those plays Saturday and beyond. Buie said the linemen are more aggressive during runs and it's rubbing off on the running backs.
"The run game mentality is way different now," he said. "If your linemen set the tone that they're going to be here all day and they're going to work them over, then as a running back you start to get that extra confidence. When you feel confident in the guys in front of you that they're going to get the job done, you're going to run that much harder because you trust that that guy is not going to be in your way when you get the ball."
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SATURDAY'S GAME will be televised on WOWK (Charleston/Huntington), WBOY (Clarksburg/Morgantown), WTRF (Wheeling/Steubenville, Ohio) and WVNS (Beckley/Bluefield).
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.