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WVU football: Dawson, quarterbacks build relationship on the field

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- The final score was 41-33 and that would suggest a failed two-point conversion play that ended West Virginia's Gold-Blue Game Saturday was inconsequential for the offensive team that lost to the defense.

Yet after Paul Millard handed off to Wendell Smallwood and the freshman running back was stopped short by safety K.J. Dillon, offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson found Millard on the field and had something to say.  

"I don't think I can repeat it," said Dawson, who doubles as the team's quarterbacks coach.

Dawson had called a pass play. Millard took that call, surveyed the defense, spotted something that spooked him and checked out of the pass play and into a run play. True, Dawson's side lost by a touchdown and a two-point conversion. Good luck convincing him that that two-point play didn't matter to the man who's to choose between the junior Millard and redshirt freshman Ford Childress to start the 2013 season.

"I've got to get them to where they understand there are times we're going to allow you to check, but there are also times, critical situations, when they've got to trust us," Dawson said. "Trust we're going to put them in situations where we've got the right play called and they've got to execute the play. Understand the difference between a critical situation and an open-field play where we're just playing football. That's a two-point play. That's a critical situation."

The Mountaineers never intended to pick a starting quarterback in the spring. Coach Dana Holgorsen said Saturday one quarterback typically separates himself after two weeks of preseason camp, which doesn't begin until the first weekend of August - and there can only be one. Holgorsen and Dawson both said they'll never go into a season or a game planning to rotate quarterbacks.

The goal of the 15 practices was instead to establish and develop trust, the trust that Childress and Millard enjoyed with Dawson throughout much of the spring, but the trust each abandoned at times in the spring game.

While Dawson is in entering his third season as the coordinator, he's in the early stage of his first season as the quarterbacks coach. Jake Spavital had that job the previous two years and he was close with the players in his meeting room. Dawson recruited Millard and was part of the group that recruited Childress over a longer period of time, but their experiences together are still new.

"It's getting to know each other on a different level," Dawson said. "When I was the receivers coach, obviously we had a different relationship, but it was probably more in depth than you think. I was in control of more of the offense than just the receivers. But right now, it's different obviously because we're breaking in two new ones and competition always creates a certain amount of intensity."

Dawson is blending his intensity into the competition. He said he is not a friend to his players. They can have relationships and those can become close relationships over time, but Dawson is consistently blunt and stern, evidenced by the way he was as upset about the indecision Millard and Childress exhibited to take so many sacks before Millard spoiled the final play.

"My approach has always been like that with quarterbacks," Dawson said. "I think you've got to put them under heat to see how they respond and the best way to do that is not sitting there being buddy-buddy with them. That's not my approach with them. They're all going to mess up. They're going to be bad, and when they do good, you pat them on the butt. But the only way to know how a kid is going to perform under pressure is to put them under pressure."

The relationship between the quarterbacks and their coach is unique on a football team. The audience is small in meetings.

The instruction has to be direct because the player's success is tied to the team's success. Without a favorite at the position, Dawson has to be equally severe and supportive with Millard and Childress, but also treat freshman Chavas Rawlins the same so that he learns the same lessons and gets used to Dawson's approach.

Dawson's approach doesn't waver, either. Defenses aren't going to take it easy on the quarterbacks. They're not going to back away from successful plans. No pity will be granted. Dawson doesn't want to set a false precedent with his practices. He instead is giving his players a head start on reality.

"I don't try to push buttons," Dawson said. "I don't even think about it that way. I think if you're doing good, you're doing good. If you're struggling, you've got to be able to handle adversity. I've always believed that you've got to sometimes stir the pot a little bit and sometimes you've got to create some adversity."

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


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