9th in a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.
In part 9 we’ll look at the most polarizing area of West Virginia’s football team: the coaching staff. There were a couple new additions to the staff over the offseason, but the biggest names all returned, including defensive coordinator Tony Gibson and head man Dana Holgorsen.
Obviously Holgs is a big factor here, but he’s going to have his own section so we’ll get to him in a minute. The biggest change on offense over the offseason was the addition of Joe Wickline as Offensive Coordinator and Tight Ends/Fullbacks coach. Wickline has 34 years of coaching experience and previously worked with Holgorsen at Oklahoma State, where together they worked to develop the diamond formation. His addition should immediately help shore up our pass protection (32 sacks and 88 TFL allowed last year), and the wider splits that he’s been working to implement along the O line should help provide better throwing lanes for the 6’0 Skyler Howard. The fact that he’s working directly with tight ends and fullbacks makes me think that those positions might be a bigger part of the offense this year, as well. Wick has received near-universal praise as a top class coach at his previous stops, and by all accounts he’s fit into the staff seamlessly.
The other holdovers on offense are Ron Crook on the offensive line and JaJuan Seider with Running Backs. Both of these guys have been with the program for a few years now, and I think the steady progression of our running game over that period of time is evidence of their good work. We’ve gone from 7th to 2nd in the conference since 2013, and the ground game looks like it’ll be a strength again in 2016.
Rounding out the offensive staff is receiver coach Tyron Carrier. At just 28 years old, Carrier is young and inexperienced, but played under Holgs at Houston and has a good understanding of what we’re trying to get accomplished. He’s certainly said all the right things at camp, and I love that he’s emphasizing getting our guys to go attack the football and help the QB because that was a bit of an issue last year. Based on what I’ve heard and read he has a good rapport with the players, and he has a ton of potential to work with. We’ll see this fall if he’s able to get his guys to play up to it.
The defensive staff experienced a bit of turnover as well, adding Blue Adams and Matt Caponi as the Cornerbacks and Safeties coaches, respectively. Adams brings an NFL pedigree to the staff, having spent the last two years helping out with the Miami Dolphins’ secondary, and is the only coach we have who has both played and coached at the next level. Caponi doesn’t have quite that same pedigree, but boasts more coaching experience and should be extremely familiar with the 3-3-5 after spending the last few years with Jeff Casteel at Arizona.
The other returning member of the defensive staff is line coach Bruce Tall. Tall returns a very solid front 3 (best run defense in the conference last year), but needs to develop a couple of functional backups to provide some depth. The defense as a whole will probably need to lean on the line for the first couple games as new starters are blooded, but fortunately everyone will once again be working under the familiar guidance of DC/LB coach Tony Gibson.
Gibson is entering his 3rd year in charge of the Mountaineer defense and loves to play aggressively out of our 3-3-5 stack, sending pressure from anywhere and everywhere. He’s widely regarded as one of the best up-and-coming Coordinators in the country, and his unit has gotten steadily better since he took over in 2014, last year boasting the 2nd best scoring defense in the conference while also forcing league-leading 31 turnovers. The thing to watch this year will be how much he’s able to trust our newcomers. West Virginia’s 3-3-5 will feature 5 new starters on the back end, and while Gibson would like to man-up on the outside as often as possible, we obviously can’t do that if guys are getting smoked out there. His background is in the defensive backfield though, so hopefully he’ll be able to help Blue and Caponi get the newcomers up to speed quickly.
Mark Scott returns for his 2nd year as a full-time staff member, and will again handle the special teams. The Mountaineers’ Special Teams unit was overall much improved last year, finishing 11th nationally in kick return average and 22nd in punt return defense. Though I think much of this improvement can be attributed to simply having better players to handle those responsibilities, at least some of the credit has to go to the man in charge. Many of those same guys will be back this year, as well, so you’d only expect us to keep improving under Scott’s guidance.
Now for the big dog. The main man for West Virginia will once again be Dana Holgorsen, who enters his 6th year in the program again coaching for his job. Holgs has done some really good things during his time here but is just 36-28 overall during that period, and only 26-25 in the conference. For better or worse he probably needs to win at least 8 games this year.
We’ll start with some of the problems. The two main areas where fans will tell you Dana has fallen short are recruiting quarterbacks and game management.
The first may be a bit unfair considering the fact that Will Grier is now on campus, and that Holgorsen’s recruiting in general has been very solid. However, the fact remains that he hasn’t yet been able to bring in a top-class quarterback out of high school, and for an offensive guru playing in a wide open offense in a wide open conference that’s a bit concerning.
The second is even more concerning. We seem to have moved away from the late season collapses that plagued us during Holgorsen’s first few years (most likely thanks to improved depth), but we’ve still had some teams underperform recently and have lost several games over the past few years that we probably should’ve won. This is nothing new for Mountaineer fans, but Dana was brought in to buck the trend and make us consistent contenders, not give us more of the same. We’ve beaten ourselves consistently over the years, either through poor clock management, poor play calling, poor personnel decisions, or just plain stupid mistakes, and when a trend like that develops some questions have to be asked about how the man in charge is handling things.
Now for some of the good things. One area where Dana has made obvious improvements is in our overall talent and depth. Fans have correctly knocked him about the QB thing, but he’s done very well recruiting just about everywhere else, including his creative use of JUCO transfers to add depth, and there’s no arguing that we have about as much talent on campus now as we ever have. Evidence of this can be seen in our recent All-America and NFL selections. Dana’s 5 years have seen 14 All-Americans and 17 NFL Draft picks, compared to 15 and 18 respectively in Rich Rod and Bill Stewart’s tenures combined. Further distinctions include the most Top 15 picks in the country over the last 5 years (4) and the most First 3 round draft picks in the Big 12 over the same period (9). You can say what you want about his results, but if he does end up moving on after this season, you can guarantee that Dana is not leaving the next guy with the same problem that Bill Stewart stuck him with.
A second area where he’s excelled is also one of the biggest reasons for optimism this year: his QB development. His QB’s (the only position he is directly responsible for) have all shown drastic improvement from year 1 to year 2, and Skyler Howard is now entering his 2nd full year as the starter. Check out the improvements the previous 2 guys made, and what happens if we take an average of their improvements and apply it to Skyler:
Obviously it’s not an exact science, but even if he falls short of those benchmarks, it’s easy to see that with just a little improvement we’ll be in much better shape offensively, right? I can think of at least a couple of games from a year ago where an extra completion or 2 might’ve made all the difference, and with all of the receivers back this year it’s not hard to imagine that extra 1 or 2 maybe turning into an extra 4 or 5.
Finally, my favorite thing about Holgs is that he’s able to identify and learn from his mistakes on a year-to-year basis. Obviously you’d like it if there were less of them, but it’s nice for a first time head coach to be able to show that he knows what he doesn’t know. He’s improved his clock management since his arrival, and has also gotten better at adjusting his system to fit his players rather than vice-versa (52-48 pass-to-run in 2013, 51-49 run-to-pass in 2014, 59-41 run-to-pass last year with Wendell and Co). The biggest step he has left to take is with the aforementioned game management (when to be conservative/aggressive, when to be balanced for the sake of it vs when to trust what you’re good at, which guys should play in which situations), and I think a big part of the problem there was that he was micromanaging too much, so hopefully hiring Wickline to help with the offensive coordination is a sign that he realized that, as well. Obviously we’ll have to wait and see if the extra attention span translates into a few more W’s this year, but I think overall Dana is growing into a very solid HC.
I’m fully aware that last 4/5 is going to draw sneers from a pretty sizable chunk of our fanbase. And I understand why. I understand that this is a results-driven business where you have to produce to keep your job, and many fans feel like Holgorsen should’ve been fired prior to last year, let alone be given another chance this year. But I urge the people already calling for his head to take a step back and try to see the bigger picture.
Look at the coaches around the country that are in their first head gig at programs on or above our level. Most of them walked into programs that were either poised for a return to glory (Stoops at Oklahoma, Jimbo at Florida State) or primed for a rise (Dabo at Clemson), and all were at least geographically familiar with the schools they now lead. None of them experienced a similar situation to Holgorsen’s, where he traveled to a new part of the country and had to deal with a conference change and an empty roster. This is not to make excuses for him, it’s just to make the argument that most of what we’ve gone through with him is simply growing pains. We’ve watched him learn how to do something on the fly, and we’ve watched him get better at it each year.
And we really were close to putting it together last year. I’ve harped on this repeatedly throughout these previews, but 10-3 was right there for the taking. We outplayed both Oklahoma State and Kansas State, and if one or two plays go even a little bit differently in those games, we win both and are riding into this season on a cresting tidal wave of momentum. Watching and listening to Dana’s pressers over the past months, you get the sense that he feels that way too. There’s a quiet confidence about him that hasn’t always been there, almost like he knows something that everyone else doesn’t, and I think that secretly he’s very excited about our team this year.
Overall, I’m a big fan of both Dana and the staff that he’s put together. The players seem to love him, the roster is stocked, the schedule is as friendly as it’s going to get, and now it’s time to go turn a few of those L’s into W’s. My only hope is that a bad bounce here or there doesn’t continue to make our fan base short-sighted. Shit happens in football. Holgs is an extremely smart guy who’s continuing to grow into his role, and I have total confidence that he and his staff are going to come good. I’d much rather we bear the fruits of those labors than some other school a few years down the line.