Depth Chart Divination

As West Virginia embarks on its first week of spring football practice in pads, there are many items to watch as the 70-some scholarship players battle to improve and position themselves for playing time this fall. Using available information, what can we glean from those face-offs as we await a full view of the team on Saturday in Wheeling? And what things will have to wait?

We'll be the first to caution about taking any of the following as a set-in-stone pronouncement. It's based on almost non-existent practice viewing, the tentative depth chart issued by WVU, interviews with the coaches and players before and during the first week of practice, and a few other sources left unnamed. However, by putting them all together, we can at least get an idea of what to look for over the next three-plus weeks, and narrow down some of the critical battles to track.

Familiarity Does Not Equal Proven Depth: Year after year, we see lists of names reeled off at some positions, followed by "analysis" proclaiming that quality depth will result. That's lazy and shallow, and not the kind of trap you should fall into. Just because you have heard names tossed around for a couple of years doesn't mean that the owners are capable of playing quality football.

This spring at West Virginia, the Familiarity Postulate specifically applies to the defensive secondary, offensive line and wide receiver positions. While there are players that you should be excited to see, that doesn't mean that they are automatically ticketed as contributors or starters this year. For example, in the secondary, we've seen players such as Terrell Chestnut, Nana Kyeremeh and Brandon Napoleon discussed as players to be relied on in pass coverage this year. While all three do have talent, and will be competing for time this spring, none have done anything in games to justify listing them as bonafide starters or back-ups yet.

This isn't a criticism, or meant to suggest that any or all of them can't get the job done. It's just to point out that they can't be mentioned in the same breath with a Daryl Worley or a Karl Joseph, who have produced on the field in multiple games.

Apply the postulate to wide receiver, and you quickly go from eight candidates down to three (Mario Alford, Daikiel Shorts and Kevin White) and even in that group there hasn't been anyone who stood out in all games a year ago. And along the offensive line, two potential starters were beaten out of starting jobs at the start of last year, while a third was moved to a different position.

Can these groups have solid starters and some dependable back-ups? Yes. But that's potential, not proven.

The Quarterback Position Won't Be Decided This Spring: I realize that many fans have thrown Paul Millard onto the scrap heap and have written off Clint Trickett, who is recovering from surgery and will miss much, if not all, of the spring. But that doesn't make Skyler Howard the automatic starter come the Alabama game. We'll be watching all the QBs closely, of course, but there's not a pecking order yet, and I seriously doubt if a starter will be named until the week of the opener – and even then it probably won't be formally announced.

We'll provide our observations on the throwing status of each as the spring progresses, and how they look in drills and the 11-on-11 work we can see. We might even have a reasonable idea of who has "the lead" after mid-April. But the coaching staff isn't likely to make up their minds until every QB gets as many reps as possible this fall.

Big Backs Could Rule: The pre-spring depth chart, combined with evidence from Dana Holgorsen's history, suggests that he likes bigger, stronger runners in his game plan. That probably gives an edge to Dreamius Smith (who has to get over a disturbing case of tippy-toes dancing), Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell, and maybe even incoming Donte Thomas-Williams. It should not be taken to rule out Dustin Garrison or Andrew Buie, but that pair is going to have to show more in the spring and fall this year than they ever have before. Each does have a stellar game to his credit in his career, so they do have the advantage of having produced under fire.

One other thing to keep in mind. Being smaller than the average sized runner doesn't automatically make a player a candidate to catch passes out of the backfield any more than being a big guy rules him out of such a role.

Hold Your Position: Last year it seemed as if Worley played every position except nose tackle on defense. Other backers and safeties jumped around to fill injuries and unproductive positions like Rice on a hot griddle. That led to mistakes due to unfamiliarity, and it's something that defensive coordinator Tony Gibson is bent on ending this year. Worley will be a corner. Joseph will play the strong safety position all the time instead of shuttling between free and strong in the nickel defense. K.J. Dillon will be a spur. Marvin Gross and Malik Greaves are also slotted there. Jared Barber, when he returns from surgery, will be a mike. Linebacker Isaiah Bruce could really benefit from this strategy as well.

We'll keep on eye on this, and see if the plan holds. Injuries could always intervene, but the hope is to keep guys focused on one spot so they can play more freely. The attending corollary is third down defense. Will there be fewer situational substitutions on passing downs? The thought was advanced a year ago that the shuffling and moving also served to confuse the defense, and that players like Joseph suffered because he had to fill a different role on third and 13 than he did on third and six. Typically, the spring isn't used to install such packages a great deal, but if there are any in evidence we'll be watching to see who mans the spots.

So Who's Really Going To Start? I'm as against coach speak as anyone else, and I fully understand the need to keep players motivated. But even someone that has an established starter in front of him has to keep working – otherwise all that practice time is wasted once it does come time for the backup to get more minutes. That's something that players fail to internalize repeatedly, and it shows when they have to play a few snaps. Invariably, they get exposed, because they didn't use all of their prep time to their advantage. And while most every freshman comes in with talent and the ability to contribute, preparation and all-out work in practice is one reason why guys such as Joseph and Worley get on the field early.

Lecture concluded, and back to the point. There are some guys that we're fairly confident will be in the first group this fall. None of these are going to be surprises, and the list is a conservative one. Any questions, and I've left them off the list.

Offense: Alford, Shorts, Spain, Glowinski, Clay
Defense: Hyman, Brown, Rose, Kwiatkoski, Bruce, Dillon, Worley, Joseph

One final point. Improvement really comes about when players such as these are pushed, and know they can't coast through spring and fall camps. That helps the already considerable motivation most have shown in earning starting jobs. And if one or more of these players does get beaten out, then that's not necessarily a bad thing. Either a player surfaced that was clearly better, or has worked harder to improve. Either way, it's a plus for the team.

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