Some elements of the process are obvious. Coaches watch practices and video, and make judgments on who executes the best. However, even that is an oversimplification, as there are many factors that can have an influence on how a player performed on each individual snap. Did he have to cover for a teammate error, or an unexpected defensive response? Was he thrown off track by a teammate? Did he get the wrong call? Is he influenced by being with a group of players who are less ready for game action?
Those items are many, and are likewise just part of the decision. There's work in the video and position rooms as well as all the intangibles that aren't quantifiable to take into account, and which can have an effect on the process. Two WVU veteran coaches, one one each side of the ball, weighed in to share some of the things they look for when picking the starters and identifying the subs that are also ready for game action.
WVU offensive line coach Joe Wickline as developed his criteria over long years of coaching, and quickly ticks off the things he looks for in developing his depth chart.
“Number one, it's about assignments. We're not going to put anyone on the field or on the depth chart unless he knows exactly what to do,” he explained. “That's our job, and that's his job. That's a direct reflection of where he his on the field and what he's doing.
“Number two, he has to be fundamentally sound. We're not going to have a chance for success unless he's technically sound. That's gauged upon where he fits and how he fits. And third, if [one guy's] effort gauge is 70% and another guy's is 90%, that is in it. We want all of those at a high level.”
Those are Wickline's building blocks. Pile them up, and they all support one major determinant.
“In the end, it's all about trust,” Wickline summarized. “The 11 on the field have to know what to do, how to do it and do it as hard as they can do it.
The bottom line is having guys who understand where they are and trying to get better every day. It goes back to quality reps and consistency and getting it done and doing it the way you are asked to do it on an every day and and every play basis.”
That trust, too, runs both ways, as the players themselves have to trust what they are being taught, and commit fully to it. There's also trust in the guy beside you, in front of you or behind you – belief that they will do their jobs and be where they are supposed to be. Without that, the whole building collapses.
Asked if eight or nine players was a realistic goal for meeting all of those criteria, and Wickline shoots higher.
“You hope you end up with a heck of a lot more than that,” he said, while acknowledging that not everyone will reach the levels he's looking for.
On the opposite side of the line, defensive front mentor Bruce Tall delved into the evaluation side of the equation.
“The best thing about live action is that you can see how players react,” he said, hinting at a bit of a preference for evaluations off 11-on-11 work, or at least full sessions between the offensive and defensive lines. “Some guys are drill guys and they are going to look better in drills. But when you put all the bodies out there and put them in situations, you see how they respond. The guys that are productive are the ones that are going to play.”
That doesn't mean that Tall ignores practice. He realizes that there are players that look better in drills than practice, or vice versa, and guards against dismissing someone that doesn't stand out in every facet. Still, there's a balance to be struck in looking at how that player performs in all the different areas of the program, and how that translates to his potential playing time.
“There have been guys like that throughout my career, guys that don't drill well but show up in games,” he recalled. “You don't want to give in to that because you do need to be good in practice. You don't say throw practice out the door. But, I don't want to be caught up with a guy that's a really good drill player but can't perform when it's game time, either.”
Line coaches also have the tough job of evaluating multiple players on every snap – more than any other position coach. As such, Tall depends on video as well, especially when looking at guys that aren't close to the ball. (Tall and Wickline both liked the addition of drone video until the Mountaineer air corps was grounded by the FAA for being too close to the airport. Appeals and requests for reinstatement are in the works.)
“We get a side view, and end zone [from both ends] so I can watch their eyes, I can watch their footwork, I can see their hand placement,” the gravel-voiced defensive coach said. “With all the [video] angles we have, if I miss it, shame on me. There are some things that you might miss [when watching practice] that you catch on video, especially on the backside. You might see some really good fits that you didn't notice the first time because your focus is at the point of attack. Those guys are easier to evaluate, even when you are up in the box, because you are looking at the point of attack first. That's the kind of stuff you get off film.”
With input and data from all of these areas, West Virginia's coaches have settled the starters and contested positions, but are still likely looking at some backups as the team prepares for Missouri. It's not a final cast iron decision, though – game and practice performance, especially in early September, can lead to further changes. Each coach, like Wickline and Tall, will use their own points of emphasis and evaluation techniques in making those calls.