It's become almost cliché – this idea of developing depth and giving backups playing time. Every year, especially in preseason, we hear the same thing. “We have X players we are comfortable playing, and they deserve to play. We're going to get them in there and give them the opportunity to show what they can do.”
When the games start, though, a different scenario plays out. More often than not, the starters get the vast majority of playing time, with only injury or a lopsided score providing time for those backups.
Before we go any further, this isn't meant at a shot at those coaches. They have a perfectly good reason for not subbing in. That backup, while perhaps very good, isn't quite as good as the player he replaced. And in a game measured by inches of ground and milliseconds of speed, that gap might be the difference between a tackle and a touchdown. The intentions are good, but when it comes time to take that leap of faith...
So far this year at West Virginia, there has been some movement in the rotation plan, although not as much as preseason talk might have indicated. The most notable locations have been on the lines, where a handful of backups are getting time. On the offensive side, Kyle Bosch and Tony Matteo have split time at guard. On the defensive front, Darrien Howard and Eric Kinsey have gotten meaningful snaps in relief. Other than that, though, the only significant substitutions have come after the game has been decided.
Most of West Virginia's coaches say that it's a matter of “feel” as to when to make substitutions, with issues such as game situations also figuring in. On the offensive line, the alternation has been fairly regular, but defensively hasn't followed a set pattern. There, as elsewhere, matters of fatigue also come into play.
Another aspect of substitutions come on special teams, where starters often hold down one or two positions. There, Joe DeForest holds the keys to the playing field, and like his fellow assistants doesn't have a charted out plan.
“It’s a feel thing, and I’ll control it on who to put in there,” he said of the process of making subs. “I’ll make those changes, but a kid can’t pull himself out.”
Noting that those sorts of substitutions happen every game, but tend toward the later stages, DeForest explains what he looks for.
“If he’s a defensive player, I’ll know how much he’s been repped and what kind of offense we are going against and whether he is getting gassed,” he noted. “Every game it happens. When you get later into the game, if they’ve been playing too many plays, then you have to get a sub in there. And then you have to be confident that the backup can go in and do the job.”
Confidence – that's the key to it all. It's not just a matter of thinking a backup can perform adequately. How close can he come to what the starter does? How important is that experience gain, or the relief of a few snaps' worth of wear and tear each week over the course of the season? WVU has begun to make inroads in that battle, but there's more to be done to reach the full benefits of a rotational strategy.