Forging a cohesive offensive line is a difficult task in the best of circumstances, but Bill Bedenbaugh won't be in that situation as he takes the first steps toward constructing the unit that is expected to clear the way for Dana Holgorsen's high-powered offense. He'll be installing his own system, and coaching his own techniques in the larger context of Holgorsen's offense. He'll be evaluating the talent of his players, and trying to identify where they best fit in the system. And he'll do so without the active services of two returning starters, Don Barclay and Jeff Braun, who are recovering from shoulder surgeries.
Given those factors, Bedenbaugh said he will start at square one when it comes to identifying the players that will make up WVU's line in 2011.
"You never have preconceived notions," he said of the process. "You go out there and coach and see what they can do. [Missing Barclay and Braun] hurts, but it gives other guys an opportunity. Hopefully it will build our depth because if we can develop two other guys that we think can start, and have these two guys that are out that have already started, you can build some depth, get them some reps and start to move some guys around."
That last statement is key, as Bedenbaugh isn't set on playing his linemen at their former positions. He's not going to move them just for the sake of moving them, but if someone shows an aptitude for a different position, he won't hesitate to make a switch. That philosophy also extends to identifying backups, where a first team guard might also be the #2 tackle, or one backup provides support at multiple positions. He also is not concerned with who played where in 2010, and noted that he has watched film of last year only to get an idea of what was taught before he arrived.
"I don't care who played last year," he said with a calm, yet focused, intensity. "They may have started last year, but maybe another guy fits better. Who plays doesn't matter to me. I am not going to play favorites. I am here to build an offensive line that can help us win games, and whoever that is is whoever it is."
Bedenbaugh's steely gaze gives a hint as to his approach to coaching on the field. Like many line mentors, he brings intensity to the job.
"[In your face] is the only way I know," he admitted with a chuckle. "I have been known to get loud. I think I am demanding, I am tough and I expect a lot."
Bedenbaugh knows, however, that there's more to coaching than just yelling or being demonstrative. He's analyzed the two major components of blocking (run and pass protection) and has specific ideas on each. He credits experience he got from coaches at Western Michigan and Texas Tech in teaching him the ins and outs of run and pass blocking, respectively, and has forged those lessons into his own philosophy. Some of those may run counter to common wisdom, but they are tenets of his outlook.
For example, he doesn't believe that a team that throws the ball a lot will necessarily become more passive in its execution, and thus less effective than a team that pounds the ball more on the ground.
"Going back to Texas Tech we threw the ball a ton, way more than Dana does and way more than we did at Arizona, but we still averaged five or six yards per carry. We weren't running it a bunch but we were running it effectively. In pass protection, it's just passive until you engage. Then it's physical. We will do some things in the passing game that allow them to be more physical at the start, like play action that will let them jump some guys and come off the ball. But you have to be patient and drop back until you engage.
"I don't think one is tougher than the other," he said in comparing his thoughts on run vs. pass blocking. "Obviously every offensive line wants to run the ball, come off the line and smack somebody in the face, but the bottom line is winning."
It's clear that Bedenbaugh isn't going to sacrifice one aspect of blocking for another, and expects his players to be efficient in both. He has already told his charges that if they expect to play for him (or afterward as a professional) they will have to show excellence in both. But he also, contrary to conventional wisdom, thinks that a running game can be built from throwing the ball.
"I think being able to throw the ball opens up big runs," he observed. "Those safeties we face know we may go over the top and they have to back out, and we get more space to run it."
While the challenges facing Bedenbaugh are many, he also has an ace up his sleeve – simplicity. It's a theme that has been apparent in talks with every Mountaineer offensive coach. From the fact that the entire offense takes just three days to install to the philosophy of running a few plays very well as opposed to a lot more plays with less efficiency, keeping it simple is the common thread that will run through the entire offense.
Play along the offensive line will be no exception. There won't be a huge number of keys or rules to follow, or a big mix of styles. There will, however, be some carryover from last year's system.
"We don't do as much," Bedenbaugh said in highlighting the changes West Virginia fans might expect to see this year. "You play fast, you play smart and physical, don't make mistakes and good things will happen. In looking at film from last year, there's a lot of plays they ran that we were running. I think its more how you package it and call it that makes it effective."
While West Virginia won't have all the answers to its offensive line questions by the end of spring, it at least hopes to have its system installed and an idea of which players will be competing for playing time when pre-season camp commences in August. The foundation for that, and for the season beyond, will be laid in the 15 practices that commence next week.