Anatomy Of A Position Change

In late March, Matt Lindamood left the WVU football team. On April 10, Ryan Clarke was injured in a practice session. On both occasions, the Mountaineers turned to Donovan Miles to fill the void.

The second decision never would have happened without the first, however. When Lindamood departed, it created a void in running backs coach Robert Gillespie's meeting room. A capable replacement was needed to provide depth, if nothing else.

But Gillespie didn't have to appeal to head coach Dana Holgorsen for help, as Holgorsen was already a step ahead of things.

"Everybody sees it. Dana's the offensive coordinator, so he understands the need for that position," Gillespie said, apparently demoting WVU's Shannon Dawson back to a mere position coach. "As soon as it happened, a kid said, ‘This is not for me,' the offensive staff said, ‘Hey, we've got a big hole we've got to fill at that position.' It's something [Holgorsen] had to make the final decision on, but I was very excited about having another guy come to my meeting room."

From that point, Holgorsen consulted with his defensive coaches to see which position had sufficient depth to sacrifice a player with the sort of body type necessary to succeed as a bigger, bruising blocker a la Clarke and Lindamood.

The natural position for such bodies, linebacker, happened to have a candidate for such a move in Miles, a veteran struggling to crack the top of the depth chart at that position, but someone who has contributed in the past on special teams.

Position coach Keith Patterson gave his blessing, an important step in the process, as coaches on both sides of such a position change need to be on board with a move to make it as easy as possible.

"It definitely has to be a mutual decision," Gillespie said.

That extends to the player himself, as those approached about such a move sometimes are apt to resist a bit. In this case, though, there were no such concerns.

"The great thing is that Donovan was excited. He just wants to get on the field," Gillespie said. "He's an older guy. He's been around here for a long time. I think he saw his best chance of getting on the field was coming to offense. It didn't take any persuading. Sometimes it does, but in this case, this was a kid that understood this was the best thing for the team and also the best opportunity for him."

As Miles' new position coach, Gillespie admitted there was a learning curve involved, as one might expect with a player moving to offense for the first time.

But Miles is a fifth-year senior who has been through West Virginia's rigorous strength and conditioning program for years, so the physical aspect of the position was not a problem. With Miles' eagerness to find a way onto the field in his last season of eligibility, Gillespie quickly gleaned that his newest pupil would do everything in his power to learn the mental side of the position as well.

"Sometimes it's harder to take a younger guy who's trying to figure out what's going on," Gillespie said. "Donovan has played in some games, and the best opportunity for him to get on the field was playing on offense. He's had a great attitude and understands what he's watching on tape, comes and watches extra tape, comes in and meets with me 30 or 40 minutes early every day."

It's a good thing, as only a couple of weeks after making the position shift, Miles is now taking the lion's share of reps at his spot. Clarke's spring may well be over with what head trainer Dave Kerns called a "lower extremity issue" -- a vague description that was apparent given the large boot Clarke wore on his foot at practices this week.

"That's what happens in football. You just have to be ready," Gillespie said. "You never know when your chance is going to come. It's a blessing in disguise. We know what Ryan Clarke can do, but the fact that Donovan is there and getting most of the reps is definitely going to help us in the fall in case something happens.

"I've taught him the fundamentals, the Xs-and-Os part of what he has to do. He's a smart kid. He understands that. Now it just goes to him being a physical guy. Linebackers and fullbacks are pretty much the same type of guy, the same type of attitude -- downhill, tough, physical guys. He already has those things. With him learning the Xs and Os and having that natural punch that he has as a football player, now it just goes to him being confident in what he's doing. Now he can play faster the more he gets reps."

But even Gillespie tempers his enthusiasm when it comes to one aspect of the position. Clarke, once maligned for his fumbling issues and dismissed as not enough of a shifty runner to merit carrying the ball, had started to earn a few reps this spring before his injury.

Would the same be true for Miles?

"No," Gillespie said directly. "Simple answer."

Thus, in the grand scheme of an offense built around explosive playmakers like Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, one where "quick-twitch" backs like Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are more apt to carry the ball, it all may seem relatively minor.

Miles, to many fans and casual observers, will be little more than a footnote this season even if Clarke gets injured again during the season. But to coaches like Gillespie, the depth he provides is vital and the willingness to learn speaks volumes.

"Donovan is working hard. He's making mistakes like you would expect from a guy playing offense for the first time, but overall, he has a great attitude," Gillespie said. "He's a physical kid. There's no doubt he's going to be a guy we're glad we have in the fall."


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