Dawson, a straight-shooter with an ear-pleasing southern accent, echoed many of the warnings from other coaches about placing too much emphasis on the depth chart going into spring drill. Given all of the caveats that have been discussed, it might have been better not to have a depth chart at all. The coaches certainly aren't tied to it, and in fact are more married to the mantra of the playmaker.
"If you make plays, you are going to play," Dawson said at least 10 times during our interview, and he wasn't the only one to espouse that philosophy. Coaches across the offensive staff aren't concerned so much with how a player is labeled as whether or not he can move the ball, gain yards and score, and that will be the primary focus of spring drills.
Take, for example, the tight end position. There's not a classic tight end spot listed on the depth chart, but that's as much a matter of who coaches the position and where he might line up on the field. Dawson, who will handle all of the receivers through spring drills, also coaches the tight ends as part of his inside receivers duties. A look at the Y slot receiver position on the depth chart reveals that Tyler Urban is at that position behind Stedman Bailey, and it's not because Urban will do the same things as Bailey on the field. It's simply the way the offense is set up to account for different players.
In the offense Mountaineer fans will see, either Urban or Bailey could line up at the Y position. They'll likely get different play calls geared to their strengths, and they can line up at different spots on the field, as the slot can line up tight, like a classic tight end, as a wingback or split out like a traditional inside receiver.
"That's the aspect a Tyler Urban gives you," Dawson explained. "He can be like a H-Back the NFL uses. He can line up at slot and motion into the backfield. He's a good weapon that we can utilize, and we have plays for that. If he makes plays, he's going to play.
"Our offense hasn't changed in ten years in regards to what plays we run, and we've had a lot of different personnel," he said of the schemes employed by Holgorsen and himself. "We run the same plays for slot receivers as we run for the tight end guys, and that's not going to change. When people change those things, I think that's a mistake. We keep it simple, and make them learn it, and move on. I don't coach the tight ends and slots any differently. One of the benefits you get is that defenses don't know what personnel you are in. We can line up in four receivers and one running back with a hybrid guy at one of the slots, and the next play we can line up with two backs and three wide receivers and not change personnel, and the defense doesn't know what personnel set you are in. Most defenses have a guy that looks on the field and counts your backs and tight ends and makes their call based on that. If you can mess with that I think you make the defense work on that a little more."
Dawson and his fellow offensive coaches have taken numerous questions about the role of the tight end or full back in this offense, in a large part because the perception is that there isn't a place for them in "spread" offenses. Dawson disputes that notion with a simple illustration.
"At Oklahoma State, Dana told me they had a fullback that was mad when they got there. The year before, he started and averaged 20 snaps per game, and he was mad when Dana came in. Dana sat down with him and told him the same thing he told Tyler and the tight ends here. 'Relax, take a deep breath, and go to work If you can make plays and make us better, you are going to play.' And that fullback played twice as many snaps this past year as he did the year before, and he was all Big XII."
It might be hard to imagine Urban running the same plays as Bailey, or a Ryan Clarke running the same plays as Shawn Alston out of the backfield, but again, the offense accounts for that. Much of the passing game is depended on receivers making reads on the fly and adjusting their routes, so dissimilar players can run the same plays with different routes and results, depending on the defense and their strengths.
That philosophy extends to plays as a whole, and also harks back to that mantra of play makers.
"We run the same plays every year, but different people get the ball," Dawson said. "The ball tends to find the playmaker. We were watching film on Nate Blackmail last year at OSU, and there were times when you dould see the primary read wasn't to him, but the ball went to him anyway. Why? Because he's an All-American. He makes plays, so the quarterback finds him. We will move people around and get people situated into the best position for them, but the best players are going to be the ones that get the ball."
Other questions surrounding positioning have also been prevalent in the run-up to spring practice, but Dawson, like Holgorsen, has expressed a preference to get people into one position and get them comfortable there.
"We want running backs to be running backs and slots to be slots," he confirmed. "There might be some moving around when we start, but as quick as we can we want to get them situated in one spot and learn those plays. I would rather not have a guy that bounces back and forth, because there is a lot of learning. Running backs have to know all their plays plus all the protections – they are connected to the offensive line for all of that. To understand all of that is a lot to ask. Specifically, with Tavon, we wold like to keep him in the slot, because we don't have a problem getting him the ball. We can quick motion him into the backfield, and that's a way to get him the ball without him having to learn all of those protections."
That doesn't totally rule out the possibility, of course, but it does mean that's not the primary plan going into the spring. Some players will be moved around, but that will be more to get an idea of their capabilities than an indication they will play at both spots. Job one for Dawson and the other offensive coaches, again, goes back to that central idea.
"We're going to run the sets and plays where we have the best players. If you can make plays, you're going to play on Saturday."