Pick up any publication, read any message board, and sooner or later you'll come across the word depth in regard to the 2014 Mountaineer football team. As in, WVU didn't have much of it by the middle of last year, and must have more to be competitive in 2014.
Read a bit further, and you'll see a couple of base thoughts rehashed and rewritten (especially by the parachute media) covering WVU. There will be a couple of sentences about building depth, perhaps a note that West Virginia seems to be on a recruiting uptick, and a list of players who are deemed contenders to give WVU more options on the field in 2014. Unfortunately, those reads are about shallow as West Virginia's depth chart in November a year ago, because they ignore a vital point: Building depth is not just about having bodies -- it's about having bodies that can perform at a good to great level.
That may sound pretty simple, but it's a fact that many overlook. For example, West Virginia had a two-deep chart for its final two games of the season a year ago, but many of those players had just a handful of snaps of experience. Some had been thrown into the fire of competition too soon, while others were moved between positions like a baseball player attempting to play all nine spots in the field in one game. The result was that while the Mountaineers had 50-some players ready to participate, far too many of those were simply not ready to play -- and certainly not at the high level demanded by the Big 12.
So, when we're talking depth, what do we really mean? It's not just having a guy that you hope to play 5-10 snaps a game at a position and not get exposed. That's surviving, not thriving. In order to get to a level where West Virginia can compete week in and week out, and have hopes for an 8-4 or 9-3 season, the depth has to be more than just a single word. It has to expand to a phrase: Quality Depth. "Quality" is the missing modifier, and the level which WVU can reach in that regard is going to tell the tale for this season.
What constitutes quality depth? For our purposes, it's the ability to substitute in a player and not have a huge drop-off in production or ability. Granted, play probably won't be as good -- that's the reason the starter is there in the first place. However, when that backup goes in, he has to be able to accomplish a couple of things.
First, the sub needs to be able to play 20-25 snaps and not get exploited. As noted earlier, hiding a guy for 7-10 plays just to get the starter a rest isn't going to get the job done. Certainly, that happens at a spot or two, but when an entire unit is trying to get by on these sorts of backups, its going to get exposed.
Second, the subs can't force the unit out of certain calls. For example, backup corners in the game can't be so poor in man coverage that they keep the defensive coordinator from calling Cover Zero. Linebackers have to have enough quickness to allow them to be part of the pass defense. Receivers have to be able to run and execute all the routes and make all of the reads in the offense. If these sorts of shortcomings exist, the entire unit is hampered, and opponents are going to exploit it.
Finally, some of these subs are going to have to "make plays". I freely admit to a growing dislike of that phrase, as it has become a cliche of the worst sort, but at its heart there's a grain of truth. It can't just be the stars and the starters who come up with a big catch in traffic, a tackle-busting 30-yard run or a big sack. Every Mountaineer fan expects to see Karl Joseph or Mario Alford deliver those highlights. But they also have to come from the second and third levels of the depth chart. A backup linebacker has to make a big stop in the hole on third and two. A second-team wide receiver has to win a one-on-one battle for a deep ball. A safety on special teams has to block a punt or knife through coverage to pin the opposing return team deep. It doesn't have to happen on every series, but the game chart can't look like it did a year ago, when Charles Sims was the majority of the offense and the top four tacklers on the team accounted for almost one-third of the stops. Look down game charts for the teams in the upper echelon of the Big 12, and this point will quickly be apparent. There will be multiple skill position players with big numbers. A number of defenders will have good TFL and sack totals. Turnovers will be forced across the lineup. Those total stats -- not just ones from a few stars -- are what makes winning programs.
So, as you peruse the preseason guides and read about depth at WVU, remember that one word falls a bit short -- just as the Mountaineers did in 2013. To get back into the Big 12 conversation, West Virginia has to add quality, not just quantity, to its depth chart. That's the aspect we'll be tracking the most as fall camp unfolds.