WVU football: Spring gives Crook time to experiment with offensive line
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- There's a fact about offensive line play that Ron Crook likes to sprinkle atop a conversation about the differences between offenses.
This is the conversation he's unable to avoid now that he has left his job as offensive line coach at Stanford to serve the same duties at West Virginia. The Cardinal and the Mountaineers move the ball differently and couldn't be more dissimilar when it comes to how they run it, although Crook said that's not entirely true.
"All offensive linemen are similar in mentality," he said. "They all want to do the same things. They're all into playing physical. They all want to go out there and put things on film that show they can play tough."
Stanford is the land of I formations with a stout running back behind a hulking fullback, of one-back sets with two or three or four tight ends on the line of scrimmage. There are plays where guards pull out of their stance and sweep across the line of scrimmage to block on the other end, plays where the tight end or the fullback angles outside to create an opening.
WVU is where the running back is usually next to or behind the quarterback in the shotgun. Sometimes there are two or three backs in that backfield.
They're under center in short-yardage or goal-line situations, where they want to hit quickly and challenge defensive assignments. There are fullbacks, though the present roster lacks one until Spring Valley's Elijah Wellman arrives over the summer. The tight ends are actually inside receivers who rarely line up next to a tackle, and there aren't many of those.
The Cardinal run power plays, counters and isolations inside, when they rely on strength and force to win in confined spaces and run straight ahead. The Mountaineers spread opponents out more and use inside and outside zones to create a gap to angle through and draw plays to displace defenders tricked into pursuing the passer.
Yet here is Crook, getting deeper into his first spring with the Mountaineers after two seasons at Stanford. He replaced Bill Bedenbaugh, who left for Oklahoma after working alongside coach Dana Holgorsen for nine years at Texas Tech (2000-06) and WVU (2011-12).
"We have the parts to do some of it," Crook said. "The difference is we recruited at Stanford for the scheme we'd been running for years - same as what we're doing here. We're recruiting for the scheme they've been doing here for years. But when you don't have five or six tight ends on the roster, you can't go out and run three- or four-tight end sets. It doesn't work."
Just because personnel won't work doesn't means plays or philosophies can't transfer. According to Crook, there isn't much variation between what Stanford does with a running back and two tight ends and what the Mountaineers might be able to do with Holgorsen's diamond formation.
Where Stanford's tight ends are on the line of scrimmage, Holgorsen's blockers are to either side of the quarterback and in front of the running back in the shotgun.
"We're going to try to experiment throughout the spring to see what fits and what doesn't fit," Crook said. "There's some stuff we're going to look at on the field and say, 'This doesn't fit,' and we'll try other things and say, 'Yeah, I like the way this looks.' "
Crook will only say he has ideas that can help as opposed to change the offense. He'll offer tweaks as instead of replacements. The goal, the reason he was hired, is to incorporate what he believes into what Holgorsen does.
"He brings some knowledge when it comes to the running game," Holgorsen said. "Again, we are trying to evaluate everything that we are doing, especially offensively, to where we can try and do something a little bit better. It would be exciting to get through spring to see what we have to do to get better from a run game standpoint to make it more productive more than anything."
The Mountaineers return far more productivity at running back and more experience there and along the offensive line than they do at quarterback and receiver.
The running game, with juniors Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison, junior college transfer Dreamius Smith and freshman Wendell Smallwood, will get a lot of attention in the spring.
How that will work or look will remain a mystery within closed practices. It's not new to Crook, though. Before his time at Stanford, he was the offensive line coach at Harvard from 2003-10. The Crimson used plenty of spread and shotgun formations and helped Clifton Dawson set the Ivy League's all-time career rushing record with 4,841 yards.
That mark used to belong to Cornell's Ed Marinaro, the runner-up for the 1971 Heisman and an eventual College Football Hall of Famer.
"We were spread oriented, but we still did a lot of different formations," Crook said. "We were a little different with personnel groupings, but we had some parts at Harvard we had at Stanford where we were going to line up and we were going to be big and we were going to run the ball. So we had that aspect and we had the aspect where we'd spread out like we do here and run the ball. We were good at doing both."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.