West Virginia football analyst Dwight Wallace has been through sea changes in offensive strategy before. As an assistant coach at West Virginia under Don Nehlen, he helped bring about the modifications that made the Mountaineers an offensive powerhouse with Major Harris at the helm. The changes from a system that relied on power football and elements of the veer to an option-based attack were, pardon the pun, major, but came about due to the first fundamental element – building around the talent at hand.
"That's the first, and most important thing – evaluating your talent and looking at the skill set you have," Wallace told BlueGoldNews.com. "That's the only reason you change. If you have the same players back, you don't change. But if you have some different skills, you take your team in the direction that your skills dictate. You have to realize you are going to be teaching this and playing into the strength of the players."
O.K., so step one is out of the way. In many respects, that's the easy part. Now come the more difficult tasks of self-analysis and the process of teaching the new system.
"You have to look at where you have been in the past, and what shortcomings you had," Wallace said of the next steps in the process. You always can identify some things you didn't do as well as you wanted. Then, you have to look at what other teams were doing to you defensively. You have to figure out how you we put your players in better position to make plays."
While that process might sound straightforward, it can lead to a mind-numbing combination of possibilities. Looking at last year's film shows what defenses did against last year's offensive scheme, but it might now show how they would respond against the in-mind modifications on the drawing board. So, extrapolations have to be made. Video is reviewed to see how other teams attacked, and elements that can be incorporated into the new scheme are appropriated. It's all part of the ebb and flow of offensive and defensive adjustments.
"You also look at the defenses you will be facing," Wallace said. "They will have some good players back, so you might want to challenge them with some different things. Every year it seems like one phase or the other grows. You get on an offensive cycle, and everyone is making a move to the spread. Then the defense gives you some new problems to challenge your spread sets. You have to anticipate for the adjustments the defense is going to make against you. If you are going to more of a drop back system, for example, you want to be ready for new blitz packages, some more coverages, things like that."
Once the basic plan is in place, the teaching begins. For Wallace, the biggest key in this process is quality repetition.
"Repetition breeds soundness," he emphasized, noting that it's important for each rep to be correct in both technique and form. "The more you repeat it correctly, the better you get. I've always felt that you build up from the individual, through groups, then up to the team. You have to learn individual techniques, and you have those sessions in practice. Then you move on to a group of players. If you are working on perimeter plays, for example, you might just want your running backs and wide receivers, or maybe a guard if he is pulling to block on the play. There are certain skills you want to each player to develop. Then, finally, you do it together as a team."
From there, it's back to video, which serves as the most-used teaching tool in the game today.
"You use film from previous practices in the classroom, make corrections to the errors and then repeat it on the field," Wallace explained. "When your starting out, if you don't have your own film yet, you can use film of other teams doing similar things. You can always get ideas from something someone else did, or did to you."
In making offensive changes, Wallace also sees the need to mix things up, and to have some things in the bag that might never be used. While that might seem counterproductive, its actually of benefit to the team as a whole.
"I always thought 15% of your offense might not be key to your system, but things your defense needs to see. I'm not sure if not all coaches agree with that, but you have to get the defense reps against different things. If your linebackers see nothing but a spread, then they don't get to see power off tackle or isolation. They might do great running around in secondary, but then they might struggle against a power attack. So you need to see it all. And you want to see it against good people, too. The scout team can show different things, but sometimes you can just overpower a scout team. It's not a bad idea to see plays that the other guys run from your own best players."
The one factor that works against this, and against the installation of new systems, is time. That's the battle that every coach faces, but with NCAA-mandated limits on practice time with players, it's the number one concern in making changes.
"You always worry about whether your are making enough changes, or whether it's too much," Wallace admitted. Any time you add things, you have to think about what you are going to throw out. You are fighting the clock, and it's always a battle to get everything in.
"For example, when I was at West Virginia with Don Nehlen, we never ran screens. It wasn't that we thought they were bad. We just didn't have the time to do everything we wanted to do. You just fight the clock constantly. You don't want to overload the players, either. You don't want them thinking so much that they aren't able to just play and be comfortable in assignments. If they are thinking too much, then you have too much in and it's not going to work."
Wallace was able to implement a system around Harris, and noted that it was an evolutionary process.
We kind of evolved into what we wanted to do with Major, but when you have a guy like him for three years, the offense grows. You put him in position to make a play, and then he made the play. Guys Major or Pat White are fun to call plays with. A pretty average call turns into a great play, because a lot of times they'll do something you didn't even plan."
In moving away from a system geared around White's talents to one focused on the strengths of Jarrett Brown, Wallace sees lots of potential. Calling Brown "a different kind of playmaker," Wallace knows some of the things that West Virginia hopes to do in its revamped offense. That, of course, goes right back to the opening premise of the change process --- identifying and building around available talent. For West Virginia, that has been done – with the continuing steps of teaching and refinement on the field awaiting in fall camp.