When West Virginia's offense sprints out onto the field Saturday afternoon for the first play of its season, the call from offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen is unlikely to be made on a whim. Believe it or not, days, weeks and even months of preparation will have gone into the call, not only on that play but on each play of each WVU possession in 2008.
However, the tireless preparation has not been Mullen's alone. Instead, it has included the input of coaches and even players, most notably senior quarterback Pat White.
"What I've always leaned on, even at Wake Forest when I wasn't the offensive coordinator, is that I'd meet with the quarterback on the day before the game and just ask him ‘What do you like throwing the best?," Mullen explained. "When (the offensive coordinator) asked me what I wanted to run, I'd pick whatever the quarterback liked the best. It's not what you know, it's what they like to execute."
In two seasons under Mullen's tutelage, Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner went from a relative unknown to one of the best quarterbacks in the ACC. In 2006, Skinner led the Demon Deacons to the ACC championship and a spot in the Orange Bowl presented by FedEx as he was named the conference's Rookie of the Year. Last season, Skinner set the ACC's single-season record for completion percentage (72 percent).
At West Virginia, Mullen's situation is a little bit different. Instead of bringing along a young quarterback as he did with Skinner in Winston Salem, he'll be in the ear of White, a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate. Though the most memorable moments of White's first three seasons have come on the ground, both Mullen and head coach Bill Stewart believe that the Daphne, Ala. native could and should have his finest all-around season in his final go-round in the Old Gold and Blue.
One way in which Mullen's situation at WVU is similar to his seven-year stint at Wake is that the game plan will be relying heavily on input from the entire offensive coaching staff. Having worked together as a staff since January, Mullen says that he and fellow offensive coaches Doc Holliday (tight ends/fullbacks), Dave Johnson (offensive line), Chris Beatty (running backs and slotbacks), and Lonnie Galloway (wide receivers), have built a great chemistry both on the field and in the meeting room.
This collaborative approach has proven to be a blueprint for success in Mullen's previous stops on the coaching trail.
"It's very similar because I'm surrounded by great coaches," Mullen said. "That's what we had at Wake Forest when I was there. We had our offensive staff that had been there for a long time. We all had our little bit of the game plan that we were responsible for. We just did it, put it together, and went out and executed it.
"My biggest fear in coming here was working with four strangers, but we've gelled really quick," he continued. "They're very smart guys, they're capable guys. They've all got their piece of the game plan, and they've all gotten it done. Because it's our first game, they got it done a while ago."
The game plan put together by the offensive coaching staff has been crafted with meticulous attention to detail. Down and distance, field position and defensive alignment are just a few of the components which go into coming up with a base attack for this game or any other game. The result is a lengthy script of certain plays for certain situations, which helps to speed up the playcalling process, thus allowing West Virginia's no-huddle spread offense to operate at its desired tempo.
"We always put the top ten or 15 calls that we like on a script," Mullen explained. "Very rarely do you have the opportunity to stick to that, but I think it's a sound idea to know what you do the best and make sure you start the game with it.
"Certainly when situations come up be it overtime or late in the game when you need something, you want to call your best stuff," he continued. "So, that's also an area of the game plan that you put your eyes on because it's what you've executed best, it's what your kids like the best, it's what you've repped the best and what's worked the best in the past few weeks."
No matter what play is called, though, the ultimate success of the call is in the hands of the 11 Mountaineers on the field at any given time. Even the most detailed game plan relies on flawless execution, something West Virginia's coaching staff has been drilling into the minds of players on both sides of the ball.
"We've got to make sure we don't beat ourselves," Mullen said. "We've got really good players. We cannot have missed assignments. We cannot have turnovers. And we cannot have penalties. So, that's what we're preaching every day, don't hurt yourself with missed assignments, turnovers and penalties."
In essence, the hardest part of preparing for Villanova is all but over, and has been for some time. Having spent several months researching this particular opponent and preparing what he believes is a game plan tailored to West Virginia's personnel, Mullen is anxiously awaiting his Mountaineer debut.
"I'm just really excited to get going," he said with a grin which stretched from Morgantown to his hometown of Lima, Ohio. "I'm tired of having to play against Coach Casteel and (the West Virginia) defense, you know? They're pretty good in case you haven't noticed. I'm just looking forward to getting to play someone in a different colored shirt."