So this is a sobering reminder from West Virginia’s coach about last season. “We did not play winning offense,” Dana Holgorsen says.
This would be a fairly innocuous comment for most coaches coming off a 4–8 season, but we’re talking about Holgorsen, whose offensive prowess was supposed to ease WVU’s Big 12 transition — not derail it.
From 2007-12, Holgorsen’s offenses at Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and West Virginia ranked in the top 13 nationally in scoring — and three times in the top three. Last year, however, an combination of inexperience and uninspired quarterback play led to a national ranking of 79th.
Holgorsen isn’t about to change his coaching style. He still knows the intricacies of the Air Raid better than most. But last year proved that you can’t simply plug in any quarterback and expect to post gaudy offensive numbers. And if you don’t have elite skill players, you better have solid depth throughout your roster — something the Mountaineers are lacking.
“There aren’t many Geno Smith- or Tavon Austin-type bodies running around right now,” Holgorsen says, referring to his former All-America quarterback and wide receiver, respectively. “We have to win as a team. We’ve got to win with good depth. I think we’re at that point right now.”
The same factors that held the Mountaineers back — they have lost 14 of their last 20 games since that resounding 5–0 start to 2012 — can actually set them free.
Cluster at QB
West Virginia played three quarterbacks last year, which tells you everything you need to know about 2013 in Morgantown.
Holgorsen’s offense is about timing, rhythm and a deep understanding of the system, and West Virginia simply didn’t have that luxury last year. Clint Trickett, a transfer from Florida State and son of Seminoles offensive line coach Rick Trickett, didn’t arrive on campus until the summer and battled injuries during the season. Ford Childress wasn’t ready, as evidenced by his suspension and subsequent transfer to a junior college. Paul Millard is considered the proverbial “program guy” — good for the locker room, serviceable player, but not a long-term answer.
Two signees, junior college transfer Skyler Howard (expected to redshirt) and incoming freshman William Crest, will have the opportunity to compete for the job, but both likely will need time. This year’s show belongs to Trickett, who missed spring workouts because of shoulder surgery.
Looking back, Holgorsen wasn’t too upset with the offense’s overall production; after all, the Mountaineers averaged more than 400 yards per game. What drew Holgorsen’s ire were the turnovers (ninth-worst in the Big 12), third-down conversions (eighth) and red-zone production (ninth).
That, friends, is how you lose to Kansas in November.
“Things get hard on third down when you’re in the red zone,” Holgorsen says. “We need to handle that better.”
Trickett fits the coach’s-son mold Holgorsen likes and, given a full offseason to absorb the plays, should improve. His 88-of-149 performance for 1,104 yards over his last four full games isn’t stellar but is something to work with. “I’m really confident he’ll be able to play better,” Holgorsen says.
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West Virginia seemed the ideal candidate to handle the demands of the upgrade to the Big 12. The Mountaineers won (or shared) six conference titles from 2003-11 in the Big East, and they did so with high-powered offenses — the specialty of the Big 12.
As Holgorsen sees it, the biggest issue in West Virginia’s transition has been a lack of depth. In 2011, Holgorsen’s first year, he carried 65 scholarship players — “borderline I-AA numbers,” he says. Initially, that wasn’t a huge issue, because play counts in the Big East ran in the low 60s. The Big 12, however, averages in the high 70s.
Holgorsen has since beefed up his roster, signing a combined 59 players from 2012-13, but WVU’s still not at 85 scholarship players.
The coach has a friend who can relate.
“(TCU’s) Gary Patterson and I have talked about that,” Holgorsen says. “You need to be able to play 50 or 60 bodies consistently.”
The Horned Frogs, who joined the Big 12 in 2012, also went 4–8 last season, losing four games by three points or less. Patterson, however, will get more of a pass because he has five conference titles on his résumé. Despite his Orange Bowl victory in his debut 2011 season, Holgorsen doesn’t have the same clout yet.
That can change if his players grow up in a hurry.
WVU’s 2013 recruiting class featured three junior college skill players — running back Dreamius Smith and receivers Mario Alford and Kevin White — who are talented but inconsistent. No Mountaineer receiver broke 600 yards last year. Expect White to make a jump.
Losing do-everything back Charles Sims is costly, but high-profile transfer Rushel Shell, who recorded 641 yards as a freshman at Pittsburgh two years ago, garnered buzz in the spring.
And there is hope that the much-maligned defense, which has ranked no higher than eighth in the league in WVU’s two seasons in the Big 12, might actually be a relative strength this fall. The Mountaineers return seven defensive starters and could be especially salty in the secondary.
On an Island
If Holgorsen gets enough time, West Virginia might have a stout roster by 2015. The Mountaineers polished off a top-40 recruiting class in February and are off to a very strong start with the 2015 class. Heading into late June, WVU was ranked in the top 20 nationally in the 247Sports Composite, headlined by five players from South Florida.
West Virginia has done well for years recruiting South Florida, and that shows no signs of slowing down. This summer, Holgorsen hired Damon Cogdell away from Miramar High, the school that produced recent Mountaineer stars Geno Smith and Stedman Bailey.
This is a reminder that no school from a power conference faces a more unique recruiting setup than West Virginia. The other nine Big 12 teams are relatively close to the conference hub in Dallas. West Virginia is a 19-hour drive from the Metroplex, with no travel partner.
The Mountaineers are building a roster with players from everywhere but Texas or West Virginia. The school signed players from 12 different states last year — with only one from West Virginia and one from Texas.
Holgorsen sees his outlier status as an advantage.
“We’re not competing with the guys we’re playing,” Holgorsen says.
“Our recruiting battles happen with Florida schools, the East Coast. It’s obviously tough to beat Ohio State on Ohio kids, but we get into Ohio. A lot of good football players there and in Pennsylvania. We get into New Jersey. Maryland.”
The bottom line, of course, is winning. Holgorsen can sell the ‘Big 12 East’ to players who might not otherwise be exposed to the conference, but these players must be able to compete in the Big 12. And Holgorsen must prove he is up to the task of serving as the CEO of a major-conference program. Making the move from respected coordinator to head coach isn’t always smooth.
The jury is still out on Holgorsen, who is 21–17 overall and 11–14 in league play in three seasons — and that includes the 10–3 mark in a first year highlighted by a 70–33 win over Clemson in the Orange Bowl. The Mountaineers have had three losing streaks of at least three games in the past two seasons. And last November, West Virginia capped its season with consecutive losses to Kansas and Iowa State.
That is not what West Virginia had in mind when it joined the Big 12 — or when it tabbed Holgorsen to lead its program into a new era.
Written by Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerCBS) of CBSSports.com for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2014 Big 12 Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2014 season.