All Eyes On West Virginia's Howard, Holgorsen in Passing Game

Both West Virginia quarterback Skyler Howard and head coach Dana Holgorsen know the spotlight is on them in terms of sharpening up the Mountaineer passing game.

It's not as if, of course, that Howard had a bad season in 2015. Despite receiving more than his share of unwarranted criticism, the then-junior threw for 3,145 yards in an offense that was more heavily weighted to the run, while also tossing 26 touchdown passes. There were negatives, including 14 interceptions and a completion rate just a shade under 55%, but on the whole Howard's performance has to be rated in the very good range. He finished off the season with a flourish in the Cactus Bowl, throwing for 532 yards and five scores in the Mountaineers' last-team-with-the ball-wins victory, but there were also a pair of those nagging picks and 23 incompletions to give ammunition to the critics, not to mention the juco level quality of the Sun Devil secondary.

One of Howard's best attributes, however, is the way in which he has responded to those evaluations. He hasn't fired back on social media or hidden from reporters. While it's clear that such questions about improvement must be wearisome, he has answered all inquiries, both during last season and through this spring and summer. He also showed improvement on his "misses" during the spring, and kept more passes in places where only his receivers could catch them. Avoiding turnovers is, after scoring, a top priority for head coach Dana Holgorsen, and he has seen improvement in that area.

"It's been a huge emphasis for us. Winning games and losing games, everybody points the finger at me. Being effective in the passing game, everybody points the finger at him (Howard)," Holgorsen evaluated. Being able to have a more comfortable pocket, having a good rapport with the receivers that were all young guys and keep in mind, Skyler, that was really his first year of playing football for West Virginia as well. Those two things, I think, are going to make a huge difference."

Howard, for his part, singled out receiver Ka'Raun White (in video above) as a player that could be a breakout guy for the Mountaineers this year, and there's no doubt that he would welcome another consistent target this fall. He and White connected four times for 116 yards in the Cactus Bowl win, and yardage totals in that neighborhood would be a huge boost for the 2016 passing attack.

Holgorsen also mentioned the influence of new assistant coach Joe Wickline, who came on board with a few wrinkles for pass protection, as another helping hand in the air attack.

"Having Coach Wickline be able to widen that pocket a little bit, having the timing with him and all these receivers that we got, I think it's going to make a bunch of difference and if we can maintain the running game where we were at and improving that passing game a little bit I feel like we'll be where we need to be." Holgorsen meandered. "We've addressed that and we know what we gotta do offensively and Skyler understands that. I think Skyler is in a really good place right now. We've gotta be able to do what we need to do each and every week from scoring points and moving the ball to be able to be competitive because the quarterback play and the offenses are so good in this league."

While Howard's mistakes get far more scrutiny than his successes, the reality is that he's not far off from having a really stellar season. Last year he was squarely in the middle of the Big 12 performance chart, finishing fifth in yardage and total offense, but sliding down a bit to seventh in interceptions.Cut about five picks off his total, turn about three incompletions per game into catches, and he moves up a couple of notches in all of the rankings. And with West Virginia still planning to lean on its running game, that could be enough to give Holgorsen the additional points he believes are needed to win in the Big 12 this year.


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