West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen has 1,000 things on his mind as fall camp progresses. No, make that 1,001. In addition to teaching a new defense, revamping special teams and tweaking his offense, the second-year head coach also has to teach rule changes to his players. That might seem simple, but in reality, it's a multi-step process that covers instruction from the meeting room to the field.
First, Holgorsen and his staff had to learn the new rules and figure out how to teach them. They also looked for wrinkles that can be used to their advantage, just as every other coach affected by the changes did during the summer. Finally, they had to implement their plans for teaching the new rules to their players.
In some cases, the teaching is straightforward. In others, especially those where a true change to an existing rule, rather than just an addition, is present, there's a significant amount of re-education involved. In both cases, however, players are exposed to teaching in a variety of manners, according to Holgorsen.
"We sit here and talk to them about it. We had a Big 12 referee come in and explain it so the guys can ask questions, and they'll hear it from the referees. We try to practice it as much as we can."
The kicking game will see the most significant changes, with kickoffs moving up five yards to the 35. Kickoff team members will be allowed only a five-yard running start, and touchbacks on kickoffs and free kicks will move out to the 25-yard line. Also, receiving teams on free kicks will be allowed to call for a fair catch on kicks that are kicked directly into the ground, removing the high-hop onside kick from most team's bag of on-side kick strategies. Finally, punt return teams are no longer permitted to leap over "shield" blockers in front of the punter in attempts to block punts. Teaching all of those changes, especially in the limited live action special teams get, may be difficult. Certainly, it will be covered, but will players remember those lessons in the heat of battle?
"Obviously, the kickoff rule is different so when we're out there we practice it and tell them what the rules are," Holgorsen said.
One of the biggest changes concerns lost helmets, and there are a couple of different facets to the rule. Players who lose their helmets will be required to stop participating in the play, although there appears to be a lot of room for interpretation in how that will be judged. The new rule mentions "prolonged participation" without a helmet, but what might that entail? Also, players that lose their helmet for any reason other than a foul by the opposition will be required to sit out one play. That rule has the potential to have a major impact on the game.
"The helmet rule is new. We try to emulate those situations. We've covered it all and are doing our best to practice it," Holgorsen reiterated. "Joey [Madsen's] comes off because he's in the trenches, so he's saying the first game he's going to put duct tape all around his chin and his helmet. Nike will probably be mad," he joked.
While he tried to inject some levity into the situation, there's no doubt that a rash of lost hats won't have him laughing during a game. Nor would a 15-yard penalty, which is the walk-off for continuing to play after losing a helmet. Holgorsen noted that the situation has occurred in past games, citing the USF contest of a year ago, but in the end admitted that there's not much he can do about it, other than ensuring helemts are tightly fitted and strapped on.
"I ignore referees, and I ignore rules I can't control," he summed up, with tongue at least partly stowed in his cheek.
Still, there's more than a grain of truth in his statement. In the end, he and his staff can teach and emphasize, but just as it comes to making plays, it's up to the players on the field to carry those instructions out.