WVU Spring Football Outlook: Quarterbacks

Quarterback battles are always the marquee items to watch on any football team, and West Virginia's spring competition approaches the Royal Rumble level with no fewer than five signal callers listed on the depth chart.

CURRENT ROSTER

West Virginia has a nicely full depth chart this spring, with five quarterbacks listed by the Mountaineer coaching staff. Emphasizing the open nature of the competition, the prominent “OR” designator is displayed after each QBs name. Of course, the reality of the situation is that the two returnees from a year ago, Skyler Howard and William Crest, were positioned with the first and second teams in the opening stages of spring drills, with Howard having the advantage of more playing time and more preparation in 2014. Both have the advantage of a year in the program, and even though he wasn't playing, Crest still traveled with the team on all road games and stayed heavily involved in each week's preparation.

That doesn't mean that freshman signees David Sills and Chris Chugunov won't get their chances this month, however. Both operated in similar attacks in high school, and both have skill sets, although differing, that could allow them to have an early impact. Sills is the more athletic of the duo, and was singled out by Holgorsen as one of the best athletes on the team (perhaps even exceeding Crest, which is saying something). Chugunov (already anointed “Chugs”) has shown some early alacrity in picking up the offense – an important factor that often plays as big a role as actually throwing the ball. Also in the mix is Austin Hensley, who walked on last year and has some of the same throwing skills as his scholarship teammates.

Having six quarterbacks in the spring is mostly good (walk-on Storm McPherson is also listed on the spring roster). There's enough competition so that no one is going to win the job by default. However, it does put pressure on each of the contestants to produce quickly, because another chance might not be forthcoming for a while. Think back to the Pat White \ Adam Bednarik battle in 2005. Bednarik earned the early starts and the bulk of the playing time, but it took an injury and the White-engineered comeback against Louisville to get the all-time greatest Mountaineer QB on the field. What might have happened had that not occurred? Might one of the QBs on the roster be a slower-developing guy, but turn out to be the best?


RETURNING PRODUCTIVITY

There are some positions that have limited returning productivity. At quarterback, it's just one step above zero, as Howard has about all of the stats from a season ago. Playing in just four games, his numbers were good. He gained 140 rushing yards on 22 attempts, and was able to extend some passing plays with good pocket awareness. He finished the season with 56 completions in 110 passing attempts (50.9%), which went for 829 yards and eight scores. While the completion percentage isn't what is required in the Air Raid offense, Howard's zero interceptions were a big plus.

Outside of Howard, Crest made a token appearance against Towson, completing three of four passes for seven yards and gaining 27 on five carries. Even in that brief showing, though, he displayed the characteristics that make him a viable QB candidate in 2015. He made good decisions on throwing vs. running the ball, got rid of it quickly, and was difficult to bring down when he tucked it under. Still, that was against Towson, not Texas.


CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS

Is there enough time in the spring to give six QBs realistic reps and a chance to win the job? Holgorsen says yes, but in reality, the window is narrow. There should be no expectation that a starter or backup is named at the end of fall practice – there just isn't enough time to do that. A couple of bad days, though, could serve to put a contestant behind the eight-ball in terms of true competition. That makes for a tough challenge for Holgorsen, as he balances the need to at least narrow down the list of candidates with the desire to give everyone as many reps as possible – especially with teammates that will be playing in games this fall, not just scout-teamers and still-developing players.

WVU will also be returning to a previous method of coaching quarterbacks. Rather than having an assistant dedicated to the position, as Shannon Dawson was in 2014, Holgorsen will return to a more hands-on role this year, with help from graduate assistant Michael Burchett. Burchett was West Virginia's part of a de facto swap with Kentucky when Dawson accepted an assistant coaching job there following the 2014 season. Burchett worked with the Wildcat QBs for three years previously, and will now fill the same role for WVU – similar to that performed by Jake Spavital, who parlayed that start into a job as Texas A&M's offensive coordinator.

So, with historical precedence on its side, what's the issue? As always, there's the factor of coaches fitting together or clicking. That obviously happened with Holgorsen and Spavital, and there's history to suggest it could happen again. However, there has to be excellent rapport and communication between all parties involved – Holgorsen, Burchett and the QBs – and that doesn't happen overnight.


SPRING GOALS

1) While naming a starter isn't expected or necessary, developing at least a working pecking order would seem to be a reasonable goal. The hope is that WVU will come out of the 15 spring practices with a top three or so – which would then set the stage for a more narrowly-focused competition in August.

2) Develop rapport between Burchett, Holgorsen and the quarterbacks. Everything from learning the signals to understanding the reasons for each play call to making the expected decision on each play has to be executed quickly and without delay. This is just the first step in development of QBs, of course, but without it the offense has no chance to be consistently successful.

3) Identify each QBs strengths and weaknesses, so that play calls can be geared to them. It does no good to call QB zone reads for a guy who is not a good runner, or deep out patterns for a thrower that is struggling with accuracy. Putting each quarterback in a position where he has the best chance of success is an overlooked, yet important, part of the evaluation process.


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