A look at Jake Spavital's resume shows that he has been an assistant coach for all of two games – WVU's wins over Marshall and Norfolk State. However, the reality is that Spavital has carried all of the duties, if not the title, of a full assistant for at least a couple of years at previous coaching stops, so it shouldn't be a surprise that he hit the ground running at West Virginia. Spavital taught Dana Holgorsen's offense to the Oklahoma State offensive staff last year and was an integral part of its implementation as a graduate assistant, so he didn't really have much new to adjust to when he took his seat in the coaches box at Mountaineer Field alongside wide receivers coach Shannon Dawson.
"Everything has been the same," Spavital said as he reviewed his first two games. "I have the same role as what I did at Oklahoma State. The thing is, we are going through the same things that we did at Oklahoma State last year. We come out, and we're lethargic at the beginning of the game, but then we get things clicking and we are good."
Of course, Spavital hopes to lessen or eliminate the early game lulls, but he understands, as Holgorsen often says, that the offense is a work in progress.
"We had these same problems," he said of West Virginia's early offensive struggles. "It's a new offense and we are just starting to get into the routine of things."
Although he's a youngster in coaching circles, Spavital shows remarkable patience as he takes the long view of coaching the quarterbacks. When the offense has a couple of three-and-outs, he's not flying off the handle, as some with unrealistic expectations do. "Instead, he emphasizes the communication process, which is the base upon which he builds his relationships with his QBs.
"You have to be careful how you act with the quarterbacks. I try to be positive with them. Geno Smith does a great job, and Paul Millard does too, in terms of schematics and strategy when we are talking with each other," he explained. "Every time the QBs come off the field they call me. Paul calls me every other series to tell me what he is seeing. And then he and Geno are talking constantly. There's a lot of communication between us."
Spavital's approach has certainly worked well. In its first two games, West Virginia was in a position where one more score could have put its opponent in position to mount a threat to win the game. Instead. Spavital and Smith stayed calm, discussed options and sparked the offense to second-half success.
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As West Virginia works to improve its pace of play and offensive continuity, it employs a strategy for playcalling that is something of a hybrid approach combining two different methodologies. Some teams don't call a play until the results of the previous one is known, while others often employ scripts at the start of each half to see how opposing defenses respond. Spavital explained that the offensive staff combines those two approaches in a flexible fashion.
"We have an idea of what we want to call the first couple of plays before we go out for a series," he detailed. We try to operate at a high tempo so Dana can just rattle the play off, so we have a few of those ready to go. Usually when we get into third down situations we have to do a little more thinking, but on first and second downs we usually have those calls ready, depending on what [the defense has] given us on previous snaps and series."
There's plenty of room for flexibility in the system, though. Third downs, as Spavital noted, may often result in a specific formation or call, and if the coaches sense a defense is on its heels it may shift to an even higher tempo in order to prevent substitutions and take advantage of the situation. The coaches in the box have Holgorsen's ear at all times, although the head coach makes the final decision.
"Coach Dawson and I are always giving a lot ideas to him," Spavital said. "Sometimes he listens to them, but a lot of times he already has decided what he wants to do. We're all talking constantly, though."
The process doesn't end with the offensive series is completed. The coaches begin to formulate their plan for the next series, gathering plays that they want to run on the first few snaps. This also includes the aforementioned conversations with the quarterbacks, so that everyone knows what to expect when the offense takes the field again.