Additional Role

In a past offensive system at West Virginia, wide receivers were tasked with blocking as one of their key assignments. In Dana Holgorsen's system, it's another set of skill position players that have to perform in keeping defenders away from the ball.

With receivers spread across the field and a traditional tight end mostly absent from the alignment, the Holgorsen attack forces defenses to cover the entire field and uses speed to create mismatches and missed tackles in open space. One of the potential drawbacks of that, however, is a lack of pass protectors in the pocket. Without the help of a tight end (or two) to chip rushers or stay in for maximum protection, the task of picking up blitzers and rushers that break through the main protection of the offensive line falls on the running backs. That's nothing new, of course – backs have always had the job of picking up leakers or an extra rusher, but in this system the importance is even greater, as they provide the extra protection on most passing plays.

As defenses search to find scheme that works against West Virginia's offense, they will likely turn to all-out rushes on occasion, gambling that they can get to the quarterback before he can find a receiver and get rid of the ball. In many of those situations, it will be a running back that has to provide the extra second or two needed to make the defense pay for bringing big blitzes, so that has been one of the main, if somewhat hidden, points of emphasis for running backs coach Robert Gillespie.

While the Mississippi native has been pleased with the effort and assimilation of the offense so far this spring, he fingers pass protection as a key area where more improvement must be seen.

"The guys have to get better at using proper fundamentals and getting into the right spots to execute," he said as West Virginia reached the halfway point of spring drills. "Technique is a big thing. A lot of guys that we are asking to do these things haven't played in games yet. A couple of them are a little bit smaller, and those guys have to get better with fundamentals You get better with reps, and there's no time to get better than in the spring."

Gillespie doesn't expect his backs to stop a rampaging Bruce Irvin or stymie a big defensive tackle one-on-one. He has to, as he as said several times, put his players in a position where they can be successful. But he also expects them to be able to help on linemen, and to take on blitzing linebackers or safeties, and doing that means learning the proper techniques and executing them in the heat of battle.

Along with those fundamentals, Gillespie lists communication as a key area. In pass protection, the backs have to work in sync with the offensive line and the quarterback in order to know what protection scheme is called, where their responsibilities lie, and execute the call. In that regard, the first-year WVU assistant has seen good progress.

"I think we are learning how to communicate. Communicating what we are doing is a key part of playing in the backfield. You have to communicate with the offensive line and the quarterback, and that has been good so far this spring."

The first eight practices of the year have featured plenty of contact, but no full-scale tackling to the ground, so Gillespie is looking forward to officiated scrimmages (the first of which is scheduled for today) in order to more fully evaluate his players.

"We will try to put the guys in situations that prepare them, but there's no experience like game experience," he said. "They are going to make some mistakes, but we'll get better from those. Hopefully we won't make many, but we as a staff won't know what they are going to do or how many they are going to make until we put them in game time situations."

Saturday's work will give Gillespie another big set of video clips to watch and analyze, but he's still nowhere near identifying the players that will start of be the workhorses in this offense. He continues to tell his players that there are several roles to be filled in the backfield, and thus plenty of opportunity for playing time.

"It's still very early. We have a lot of guys in battles. The important thing is for the guys to see there is a role for each of them in the offense, so they are trying to find what role they can fit in. We are going to play three or four guys in a game. This offense is built for guys that can do different things, so they stay motivated because they are trying to show what they can do and find their role in this offense."

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