During the early days of fall camp, the competition is often fierce for starting roles and key reserve spots on both sides of the ball. However, as camp winds down and attention shifts to game preparation, most of those decisions get made, and the focus moves to polishing and preparing those players that are expected to get the most playing time.
For some units or positions, however, that isn't the case. At West Virginia, it's certainly not for the offensive line, which has seen some shuffling during the final days of camp and could possible see more as the season progresses. When asked whether the time had come to settle on a starting five and working with those players more, along with two or three key reserves, to start the season, head coach Bill Stewart was adamant in his response.
"No," the second-year head coach flatly stated. "We are going to compete. [This week] are going to compete. And two weeks after that, after the first ball game, we are going to compete."
Now, any coach worth his salt (and who knows his clichés) is going to say that competition remains open all year. And to a certain extent, that's true. If a player isn't performing well, and his backup has shown promise in practice, he may get an increased role, and perhaps even a start, in next week's game. However, an established veteran that has a bad game isn't likely to be yanked from his starting spot – nor is one that has a substandard week of practice.
We're not talking about such instances here, however. We're looking at a unit that has very limited game experience. Selvish Capers, the grizzled vet of the group, has 19 starts. Eric Jobe, pressed into service when Mike Dent went down with a career ending injury, has five, and just 350 total snaps in his career. Donny Barclay, by most accounts the most talented offensive lineman, has one start and 260 plays under his belt. Josh Jenkins got just 75 plays under his belt before injury shelved him for the season in 2008. Joey Madsen, another precociously talented youngster, has yet to see the field. That's just not a lot of experience, so there isn't a great deal for the coaches to fall back on when they are trying to assemble the starting lineup.
Complicating this is the fact that the most talented players might not always join together to make the best unit. In 2002, Zack Dillow certainly wasn't the most skilled center, but his game smarts, combined with the way in which he meshed with his teammates, made the offensive line better than the sum of its parts. That's certainly not always the case, but it's something that has to be taken into account when putting together a group that has to function smoothly as one.
There are parallels at other positions and groups. A wide receiver might not be the fastest of the bunch, but he may have a knack at reading defenses, or might have a rapport with a quarterback that allows him to get the ball. Defensive linemen might have complementary skills that allow them to run stunts and twists in a manner that's more effective. Such synergies often lead to better play across the board, and thus coaches have to take the time to evaluate different combinations of players. It might be best described by Stewart, who says, "The 11 best are not what I am looking for. I'm looking for the best 11."
The only drawback to this approach is time. There just isn't enough preseason practice time to look at every combination for an extended period. And even with scrimmage video to evaluate, the amount of "game" action to watch and grade simply isn't sufficient to give a complete picture before the first real contest of the year is played.
Thus, there are two things to keep in mind about the evaluation process and the hoped-for growth of the offensive line in 2009. First, it's going to be an on-going process that doesn't stop on the practice field, or when the calendar turns to September. And second, don't be surprised to see different combinations as the coaches search for that "best 11".