Eye On The I

An undervalued ability will largely decide how much Will Johnson – and part of the West Virginia offense – flourishes in the fall.

Much was made of Johnson's tight end performance during spring drills, when the former wideout caused major headaches for defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Johnson continually triggered match-up problems by settling into zones holes for catches, then gaining solid yardage through an upfield push. His combination of size (6-2, 220 pounds) and athleticism proved difficult to slow at times, and his duel duties at fullback continued a recent WVU trend of using the same player at both positions. If the sophomore can prove adept at blocking out of the I-formation as he has on the perimeter, it will allow the spread offense to continue the pace and flow it had under Owen Schmitt.

The All-Big East player, who is expected to be the first fullback selected in this week's NFL draft, slid from fullback to tight end flawlessly. That capability allowed West Virginia to operate at a quickened rate with increased options despite identical personnel. The lack of substitution allowance also limited defensive options and rest and created coverage and blocking troubles that often paired Schmitt in open space against an overwhelmed outside linebacker or defensive back. And though Schmitt never caught as many passes as he should have because of the reliance and overemphasis on the run, the mere threat produced a two-fold blessing of general defensive approaches and a myriad of offensive options.

West Virginia is still utilizing the added looks it amassed under Schmitt, and neither head coach Bill Stewart nor offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen want to devolve from those sets. If Johnson can master, or at least get a basic grasp, on the blocking required, he could add the ability to use multiple looks with the same personnel. That will allow the entire offense to operate at a quicker pace and pose more problems for both opposing players and staff. But with all the expected looks out of the I – Stewart ran that formation often in the Fiesta Bowl, including on two touchdown runs by tailback Noel Devine – Johnson will have the prove effective in the role before any thoughts of offensive pace are paired with him.

"I never blocked out of the I-formation before," Johnson said. "That's something new. Right now I am not as big as I want to be. But later, over the summer and things, I can see it working out. It should be really nice."

Johnson hopes to go from 220 pounds to 235 by the start of fall practices. The 15-pound gain, he said, would be the most he has ever added in one summer. The strength and conditioning staff has compiled a diet and workout regiment that could allow Johnson to at least challenge that gain goal, if not meet it by early August.

"I don't think keeping my speed will be a problem," said Johnson, who was timed at 4.50 seconds in the 40-yard dash coming out of Centerville High in Ohio.

The issue of now is both weight and strength. Johnson went without a catch in the Gold-Blue spring game, but rushed three times for 12 yards with during increased time at fullback. He has yet to handle the more physical areas of the position as well as wanted, however, largely because blocking against cornerbacks and safeties he is used to seeing is far different than the brute force needed to challenge defensive linemen and crashing linebackers.

Schmitt was legendary for his dented facemasks culled by a demolition style that demoralized foes. Johnson, accustomed to skill match-ups on the edge, isn't the same type of player and likely will never develop the taste for contact that Schmitt has. But if he can add the technique – the hand placement, low pad level, hip movement, arm extension and drive required to leverage and seal large bodies – he can become an even larger asset than his blossoming reputation might suggest.

"They wanted to make that transition to help balance the offense out and get more speed," Johnson said. "When you have a tight end, you basically have another receiver on the field. When you can also play fullback, you can do even more. It is just going to help balance the offense out and help the passing game."


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