Spring Thoughts and Observations

With spring football practice three-fifths complete, and the first of three scrimmages (including the Gold-Blue game) in the books, it's time to share a compendium of observations, thoughts, and things to watch on the 2011 edition of the Mountaineer football team.

West Virginia's offense, which looked to hold the upper hand through the first third of the spring, has suffered some lumps over the past week, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Playing in Saturday's full scrimmage, albeit in steady rain, highlighted a number of areas that need work, most notably pass protection, and should serve notice that while the offensive system might be fully installed, it also will require a great deal of work to become the sort of attack that Dana Holgorsen has been used to fielding. In 11 series, ranging in starting points from the two-yard line to the defense's nine, the offense accounted for just 24 point, with ten of those coming on two drives that began in the first and goal situations.

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It certainly wasn't all bad for the offense, though. There were several big plays in the passing game, and the running backs as a group ran hard. WVU appears to have a number of players that will compete for time there, with Shawne Alston, Daquan Hargrett and Trey Johnson all strongly in the mix. The sneaking suspicion from here is that Also offers the combination of skills that might fit best in the offense, but with two and three backs in the formation on many plays, there's going to be plenty of time for everyone. Freshman Vernard Roberts is also making a push for notice, and if the backfield weren't so crowded in front of him, he would certainly be getting more buzz. As a group, the quarter averaged nearly five yards per carry.

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The passing game got its most realistic look at live action yet on Saturday, even though whistles were blown before quarterbacks took hits. Both Geno Smith and Paul Millard showed very good decision making for the most part, although Millard did launch an ill-advised pass to a double-covered receiver in the end zone, resulting in a Mike Dorsey interception. Despite the rain and wind, both QBs appeared to pick the right targets, and didn't force balls into coverage. That's an encouraging sign, as communication between pass catchers and throwers has to be spot on for the offense to click.

Countering that was pass protection, which ranged from o.k. to bad. Bruce Irvin was his usual dominant self, but Julian Miller also got into the backfield a good bit, and pressure came from all along the defensive line at times during the 76 snaps. This came without benefit of a great deal of blitzing, as Jeff Casteel's troops again worked on executing assignments and fundamentals of the 3-3 stack.

One other point that stands out about this system – if West Virginia's gets a one-on-one match-up downfield, it's putting the ball up. It's clear that Holgorsen expects his receivers to win those battles, and there's emphasis on taking those shots to counter the shorter routes in the system. All three quarterbacks throw a nice deep ball, but in particular, Geno Smith's strikes get there in a hurry. He can arc the ball if necessary to get it over a defender, but if his receiver has inside position or is open in a deep seam, he doesn't put more air under it that necessary. Several times this spring, he has zipped a ball past a deep defender who clearly believed he had a shot at an interception, only to see the ball get to the receiver for a big gain.

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Ball security continues to be a focus of spring work, with every practice featuring drills on both sides of the ball. In addition to the "turnover circuit" which punctuates each practice session with a variety of stripping and protection tactics, the quarterbacks also go through a session where they drop back and move in the pocket against a simulated rush while GA Jake Spavital swats at them with big pads in attempts to dislodge the ball.

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With Bradley Starks out for the rest of the spring and summer with a separated shoulder (and resulting surgery) there's a renewed battle for playing time out wide. Coley with moved from inside receiver to outside receiver for the scrimmage, and may stay there for the rest of the spring, even though that leaves just Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and Tyler Urban as known quantities there. Although the offensive staff doesn't want players to have to perform at more than one position, White may need to do so to fill that gap until Starks is ready to return. The outside receivers have been up and down, with Ivan McCartney and J.D. Woods each making a catch on Saturday, but also dropping a pair. Consistency at that position has to improve if this offense is going to more than a short passing and running attack.

As always, there's a counter to that performance as well. Even though several passes were thrown deep, WVU couldn't go downfield as often as it wanted due to the pressure of the pass rush. If protection improves and becomes more consistent, it's likely that more passes on longer-developing routes to the outside receivers will follow naturally.

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Shuffling continued on the offensive line, with Tyler Rader getting an extended audition at right guard with the first group. That followed last week's look at John Bassler at center. Chad Snodgrass has also gotten extended practice work with both the first and second units.

The biggest concern with this group is performance and depth at tackle. With Don Barclay and Jeff Braun out for the spring, WVU is fielding a quarter of tack;es with exactly three games of on-field tackle experience between them. Quinton Spain, Nick Kindler and Curtis Feigt have yet to take an offensive snap in game action, while Pat Eger got a handful of snaps against Coastal Carolina, Louisville and Cincinnati in 2010. It's no surprise, therefore, that they are taking some lumps this spring. The key for them is to learn from their mistakes and continue to improve.

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