Springing Forward

With West Virginia's spring football practice on a one-week break, it's a good time to evaluate what was accomplished during the first five sessions in March, and where it's heading for the rest of the spring.

The Mountaineers originally had six sessions scheduled before spring break week (Mar. 25-30), but canceled the last day of those on Mar. 21 in the face of bad weather and the cramped quarters of the Indoor Practice Facility, which is home to the temporary weight room while those quarters, on the field level of the Milan Puskar Center, are being renovated. When West Virginia returns to the practice field on Apr. 2, it will have nine remaining practice sessions, not including the Gold Blue Spring Game on Sat., Apr. 20.

So far in spring drills, there has been an emphasis on fundamentals, right down to where to line up and how to execute some of the most basic of tasks. That's often present in spring practice, but a combination of several events make it even more prevalent this year.

First is the presence of a number of newcomers and redshirt freshmen who haven't been through a spring session yet. While the individual periods of practice haven't changed, there's a different emphasis in spring. Without a game looming, more attention can be paid to building individual talents and working on the minutiae that contribute to solid play. That work usually happens during the "individual" periods of practice, where each position group practices with its coach.

Next is the presence of five new coaches, which also requires some acclimation time. While Dana Holgorsen's mantra of "we haven't forgotten how to coach" is true, it's also true that getting everyone and everything together takes some time. Individual coaches have their own favorite drills and points of emphasis to make, but those have to be folded in to the offensive and defensive systems so that the position group work contributes to, and doesn't butt up against, the building of the whole. Coaches have to learn their players, their strengths and weaknesses, and figure out how to utilize the former and improve or mask the latter. Coaches themselves have to get to know each other, and plot the best way to work together. Players have to learn what the coach wants, get comfortable with new or changed techniques, and put those into practice.

WVU is just getting started on these tasks, and it takes time to put them all together so that they become second nature. In our interviews with assistants, this process is sometimes downplayed, as if it held the potential for problems, but that's not the point to be considered. In any team environment, there are many dynamics in play, and when half of the team is new and on its first go-round through a process, it's simply not all going to come together in five practices, or 15. That doesn't mean problems exist -- it simply points up the fact that a perfect confluence of every approach is going to be achieved right off the bat.

None of this should be construed as an indictment of the coaching staff. It's simply a fact that goes along with personnel changes. Every team that had big graduation losses or coaching turnover has to go through it. The ones that can make the most progress and reach a comfort stage the most quickly are the ones that have the chance to have the most success – but that is still predicated on the availability of talent and the development of it.

One other area that has received a good bit of attention early on is special teams. Full placekicking and punting work was a feature from day one of the spring, and special teams coordinator Joe DeForest said he has been "scouring every meeting room" to find contributors for each unit. There is definitely a renewed emphasis on special teams productivity this year, and that's not just limited to placekickers and punters. Good coverage teams, protection skills, explosive kick returners and tacklers that can force turnovers are all on the radar screen.

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Another item to watch is West Virginia's suspected switch in emphasis to more running in its offense, given the lack of proven ability from anyone in the passing game and the presence of what appears to be, at least on paper, Dana Holgorsen's best group of runners in his short time at WVU. The form that this might take remains to be seen, but interviews with offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson indicate that the foundation of an "expanded" running game are already in place. Based on that, there probably aren't going to be a number of different looks in formations or in actual plays themselves this year, but there do figure to be some tweaks.

First, much of Holgorsen's running game plays off the success of the passing game. If he's forced to run first, will the spread keep defenders spaced enough to make the gap-oriented run game work? If WVU goes with more backs, perhaps featuring the diamond formation with three players surrounding the QB in the backfield, will a power run game evolve behind the blocking of players such as Cody Clay, who showed the ability to take on linebackers? Will receivers get time in the backfield as well as potential receivers and runners? There are a number of different ways that the 2013 attack could materialize.

The most important item to remember, however, is that Holgorsen isn't going to junk his passing attack. He might have to make some tweaks, but the basic tenets of getting the ball out of the QBs hands as quickly as possible via a quick read and decision are still going to be the linchpins of the passing attack. The QB that can do that the best while protecting the ball is going to be the starter, and on that success or failure will ride the overall success of the offense.

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