Following WVU's ugly loss to Kansas State, co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson touched on the issue – a lack of leadership – in response to a question about identifying the players that would have to lead the team out of its two-game losing streak. Unfortunately, as with problems such as pass coverage and the lack of a pass rush, answers weren't apparent.
"We've been talking about that all year long," Patterson said of the search to identify those players. "It's time to quit talking about it. It's time for players to step up and take their role. We need to understand that there has been a lot invested in this program to get it to this level where the expectations are high. We have to figure it out. We have to go through it with a fine tooth comb and look for answers."
Before anyone trots out the "throwing players under the bus" line, read on. Patterson noted repeatedly that fixing that issue, as well as the others that plague the defense, reside with everyone, not just the players. While it's a common assumption that leaders are born, not made, Patterson said that it is the responsibility of the coaches to bring out those qualities and develop them, just as they do physical talents.
"You have to motivate players. It is hard. We have to do something as coaches. We have to get guys to play with passion, energy, and emotion. We have to get guys to play with confidence. Right now we aren't doing that."
Head coach Dana Holgorsen also touched on the issue in his Tuesday news conference, noting that "the older guys need to act older."
"We need the older guys to bring along the younger kids. We need them to be tough when adversity hits," he detailed.
If those comments add up to an indictment of the state of leadership on this team, well, they probably are on target. It certainly seems as if there's an absence of players who are providing the sort of leadership a young team needs, both on and off the field. That's not to say that there are players that aren't capable of doing it – just that they haven't done it.
Of course, this opens up a lot of questions. We only get to see leadership on the sidelines and on the field during game day, and from hints and off the record comments that come our way. We don't have an overall picture – certainly nothing like the coaches do. And even they aren't with players all the time. Who's encouraging guys to eat right, get their sleep and study at 9:00 p.m.? Who's hitting the position rooms or their iPads and laptops for extra video study? And who's showing the young guys the things they need to know to grow quickly?
There are also questions of what makes a leader. Do you have to be a great player? Not necessarily. One of the players John Beilein singled out as being an outstanding leader during his rebuilding years at WVU was Duriel "Juice" Price, a walk-on who rarely played. Price did all the right things, however, and emerged, at least in Beilein's eyes, as one of the leaders of his team. Is there someone like that on this year's Mountaineer football squad?
It's clear that Geno Smith is a leader. But from our admittedly incomplete view of what's going on with this team, there aren't any others that really stand out. Certainly, there are players like Shaq Rowell, who has been the best Mountaineer defender all year, who have led by example, but are there others filling the many different leadership roles? Shawne Alston appeared to be settling into that role in fall camp, but his absence makes it difficult to exert his influence in all situations. He's certainly been trying – the last two games he has been on the field exhorting, talking and doing what he can to help – but his inability to play limits his influence.
Where are the guys that will blister teammates for making the same mistakes over and over again? Who will show them what they are doing wrong, and help them through the dizzying adjustment from the practice fields to game day? Surely, by now, if those people existed, we would be seeing at least some improvement in play, if not in the won-loss columns.
Like all of the other problems hounding this West Virginia team, this one won't be easy to fix either. You can't just anoint a handful of players as leaders. They have to develop. They have to have the respect of their teammates. They have to be guys that don't take days off in the weight room or on the practice field. Are they out there? Are the results of the last two weeks the push that will get them to take the reins? As always, the answer is, "We'll see."
For Patterson and the rest of the coaches, though, the answer can't come soon enough. Asked if he had ever been a part of a team that had struggled like this one, the coach's rueful smile and one word answer spoke volumes.