Spring Questions and Observations

Spring football scrimmages aren't always designed to find immediate answers, as West Virginia's first officiated tilt on the artificial surface of Milan Puskar Stadium showed.

While the Mountaineers did get in the 80 good plays the head coach Bill Stewart was looking for, WVU is by no means a finished product yet. While there was much to be positive about, several questions were also highlighted as areas that need to be addressed over the remainder of spring practice and fall. Following are a compendium of observations from Saturday's drills and scrimmage.

There has been a good deal of discussion about the "softer tone" of practice. The departure of several high-volume coaches has meant fewer raised voices at practice, which is certainly a change for the Mountaineer program. While there's not just one "right way" to coach, correct errors, and motivate players, the question for the 2008 team is this: Will they respond, and still play at a fever pitch, under coaches that put less in-your-face pressure on them?

The answer remains to be seen, as a true picture won't be viewable until West Virginia takes the field for real. Anytime there is a sea change in a program (and WVU's coaching rollover certainly qualifies), there is an immediate bounce in emotion. Change, in and of itself, is often the prime motivator for that phenomenon. And so far this spring, the team has been enthusiastic, with lots of intense play, followed by whooping and hollering, during practice. However, will it continue through the dog days of August, and when the going gets tough against Colorado, Auburn or South Florida?

That's not to say that the coaches don't push the players. There is definitely still intensity on the field from the staff. Much of it, however, comes in a different style than in previous years, and there is always the question of how the team will respond.

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As someone that watches the offensive line first off, the absence of several starters is a concern. While this does mean that backups are getting extra valuable reps during the spring, it also costs the tentative first team line the chance to work together. A group that has worked for three different coaches in the past three years needs every snap it can to hone the teamwork necessary to execute intricate blocking schemes, and although they all played together last year, the changes and new plays being installed make this spring a bit more critical in that regard. The good news is that most of the linemen are on the field, and are at least able to participate in non-contact drills and listen as line coach Dave Johnson explains what he wants. Will that, plus fall practice, be enough to conquer the problems that head coach Bill Stewart discussed last week?

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In Saturday's scrimmage, the defense probably had the overall upper hand, even though the offense had a handful of big plays. The defense stopped the offense on five consecutive play series starting at midfield, and also came out on top in almost all of the third and fourth down situational plays that were run late in the scrimmage. Although there were a few mental breakdowns (which were quickly address by Bill Kirelawich, Jeff Casteel and David Lockwood, who came running upfield like a cavalry charge after one such blatant error) the defense was able, overall, to keep the offense contained.

The only glaring errors were three offside penalties on the kick block team, which came over the span of seven kick attempts. Those resulted in a change of personnel and a lecture on the damaging nature of giving foes an extra set of downs due to a silly penalty.

The defense may have been distracted by the sight of a kicker wearing number 77 making those attempts – it was, of course, free spirit Patrick McAfee, who was apparently trying to pass through the scrimmage incognito.

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Offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen's changes to the offense include the manner in which the quarterback signals he is ready for the snap. Previously, the QB pointed to the ground with one index finger. Now, the QB drops both hands toward the ground more slowly, and then brings them back up in the ready position for the snap.

One thing that hasn't disappeared is the wide receiver screen. Several different versions were on display in the scrimmage, with mixed results. Brandon Hogan had the two biggest gains on those plays.

WVU also showed a couple of short slant passes, but one was run near the goal line, and with more defenders crowding the inside zone, it was broken up and nearly picked off. It will be interesting to see if that play is run when more room is available for it.

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West Virginia has been very fortunate in avoiding devastating injuries over the past few seasons. While the Mountaineers certainly suffered their share of bumps, bruises and missed games, they didn't have to cope with losing two or three players on one unit, or have to fill holes with players that weren't ready to go. That will again be a key this year, as WVU, like just about every other team in the nation, doesn't have the kind of depth that can plug in nearly equivalent players at every spot when injuries occur.

In addition to the players along the offensive line, WVU will also be anxiously awaiting the return of Reed Williams (out while rehabbing from shoulder surgery) and Zac Cooper, who is being monitored to determine the cause of dizziness that has kept him from practice.


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