Reading Tea Leaves

It can be difficult, at times, to get a read on the plans and intentions of any football program in terms of its game strategies, but truth be told, that's probably just how coaches like it.

Take, for instance, WVU head football coach Bill Stewart's statements in the week leading up to the Gold-Blue game last Friday. On more than one occasion, Stewart noted that the coaching staff knows what Noel Devine and Jock Sanders can do, so they would be emphasizing looks at other players and tactics during the contest. So what happens? The pair combines for 21 of the Blue team's 58 plays -- certainly not limited duty by any means.

So, was Stewart deliberately trying to mislead anyone? No. The coaching staff obviously was trying to balance getting the senior stars some work while letting them play in front of the crowd (a solid turnout, despite the whining of a few media members about the date and time).

What this goes to show is that making final judgments based on spring results can lead observers down the wrong path. With that in mind, let's look at some other comments that were made and goals that were set during the spring, and see what the results might be down the road.

  • LEADERSHIP

    This was one of Stewart's top priorities in the spring, as he mentioned it multiple times in interviews and tweets during April. Did that indicate that a lack of such a year ago was a problem? Perhaps, but for those looking forward, the big question is, did it develop?

    On most fronts, the answer appears to be yes. Players that perform at a high level are often the natural go-to guys for leadership duties, and players such as Chris Neild, J.T. Thomas and Robert Sands look to have embraced those roles. Thomas, while sitting out the spring game, was a visible presence on the sidelines, encouraging the defense and talking with players as they came off the field. Neild and Sands, while perhaps not as vocal, appear to be just as effective with their prospective units.

    Offensively, if the quarterback isn't a leader, there's cause for concern, as the guy that starts the plays and handles the ball on every snap simply has to be a guy that inspires confidence and motivates. Geno Smith did as much as possible in that area, building on his performance a season ago. While there's still the nagging matter of not facing a full rush until the fall, he carries himself like a quarterback, and appears to have the respect of his teammates.

    Obviously, Devine and Sanders should fill those roles as well. They both have progressed from shy, reserved and distant personalities as freshmen to more confident speakers and leaders as seniors, and that has to carry over to the rest of the team. If it does, WVU needs only a guy or two to emerge as a leader on the offensive line to complete the picture.

    More than any other factor, however, the issue of leadership is one that's difficult to assess. It's like the question of a team's chemistry -- how they work together. Coaches and players work to develop it, going through team bonding sessions and the like, but in the end it's often a matter of whether it develops or not. While leaders can be molded, they have to have the desire to be one in the first place, or it's simply not going to take.


  • SPREADING THE WEALTH

    This phrase has been misconstrued and misapplied as a criticism. The idea behind it is sound -- don't be predicatable offensively, and use other players and positions to help take the focus from Devine and Sanders in the offense. Some people have used this as a criticism of offensive strategy, saying it shows that WVU doesn't want to used its big weapons enough. That, however, isn't the case.

    West Virginia doesn't want to take the ball away from its big guns. But it does need to be varied enough to be capable of attacking defenses in different ways, and to be able to respond to chances in the tactics it faces. With that understood, how can WVU do this, and still get the ball to it's major weapons?

    The first is the utilization of the tight ends. This has been a snap answer to many of WVU's ills -- 'Why don't they throw to the tight ends?' has been a question posed by many over the past decade. The current coaching staff hopes to put that question to bed this season, but some of the onus is on the tight ends themselves. Some high profile drops in games have curtailed confidence in calling feature plays for that position, and while performance was better this spring (including a couple of stellar 7-on-7 days for the group) there's still the matter of making it happen in real games.

    There was a nice first step in that direction in the spring contest, with five catches from three different tight ends. Will that commitment continue in the fall?

    The second is also another long-standing issue -- better downfield passing. The moves of Tavon Austin and Eddie Davis to wide receiver gives WVU much more speed at the position, but will it be utilized in the deep game? That wasn't in evidence during the spring, and with the continued ankle woes of Bradley Starks and general low numbers, progress in this area was limited.

    In some way, though, WVU has to be able to complete some downfield passes. They've made the moves to bolster that area of attack, but they also have to actually throw some passes to those receivers in order to make it something that defenses have to account for. It's easier said than done, of course.


  • INTANGIBLES Two players that have faced legal and off-field issues, Scooter Berry and Brandon Hogan, have to be, if not leaders, at least solid members of the senior class. West Virginia isn't talented enough to have guys going off the reservation, as this pair did at the end of last season and during the winter. Both are among the top players on the defense, and West Virginia needs them on the field in 2010. Just as importantly, it needs them to set examples for the young guys behind them.

    Berry was a visible presence during spring practice, and as vowed to learn from his mistakes. Hogan has not been as forthcoming publicly. Nothing should be read into that, as different people handle issues in different ways. But there's no doubt that the way in which they respond to those issues will have a big impact on the team.

    There are any number of other issues that could be thrown into this discussion, but the ones we've talked about here figure to head the list. Just how will he coaches diversify the attack but keep the ball in the hands of Sanders and Devine? Can they mix up the ways in which they get the ball to provide some needed diversity? Will they commit to throwing the ball down the field to different targets? Will those players develop enough to make them viable threats? And will those leaders emerge? Those are the things all Mountaineer fans are trying to get a read on, but the answers will likely have to wait until the fall.

    It's important to remember, however, that the decisions the coaches make in these areas aren't made arbitrarily. They don't want to mix things up just for the sake of doing so. If giving the ball to Devine in the I is working, they'll keep doing it until it's stopped. They develop schemes and call plays that they believe gives their team the best chance to win, even if they don't end up matching their stated desires.


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