Dave McMichael has seen offensive schemes and systems come and go, and he rejoins West Virginia just as the Mountaineers appear to be trending back toward a system that's right in his wheelhouse. A stalwart from the Don Nehlen era at WVU, McMichael coached the exterior offensive line from 1983-2000, with many of the early years featuring I-formation power running sets. That, of course, is the first image one has of the Nehlen years, but the fact is that WVU showed a good bit of offensive diversity during that time. When Major Harris hit the scene, there was still plenty of I, but there was also option and more play-action off that running scheme. Later, Marc Bulger's development made West Virginia more of a downfield passing team than it had ever been, with a couple of those teams thinking pass first, then using run as the changeup. Put all those systems together, and McMichael had pretty much seen it all at West Virginia.
Of course, the Mountaineers went to the spread the year McMichael departed for Connecticut, and with two of the best playmakers in WVU history, were able to put a lot of points on the board. Just as he returns, however, the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Head coach Bill Stewart has preached repeatedly for the need to be more diverse on offense, and not to be married to one system or sequence of plays. The growing pains in that move have been evident, but Stewart believes that West Virginia might be getting closer to the balanced, diversified attack he wants.
Enter into that mix McMichael, who coached teams at UConn that were similar to the early Nehlen years. Run the ball, don't turn it over, play physical defense and make the other team beat you. A dose of that certainly wouldn't be bad for West Virginia's offense, but McMichael doesn't think that it's a wholesale cure. He understands the philosophy Stewart espouses, and thinks the coaching staff is on its way to achieving the goals the head coach has set.
"The offensive system is a little bit different," he explained. "It's still a spread system, but I think Jeff Mullen has done an excellent job. The part I was involved in this spring -- working the tight end into the system, blocking as well as passing -- we think we have a couple of pretty good tight ends to work with in Tyler Urban and Will Johnson. We know that we have to find ways to get them on the field and use their talents."
Urban is more the picture of a traditional tight end – a guy who can line up and be a lead blocker, but also get out and catch passes. Johnson is more of an H-back type – a player that can hopefully exploit some mismatches in coverage. Although that hasn't happened consistently yet in his career, the wish is that he and Urban can form a one-two punch that makes it difficult for opponents to prepare for and cover.
Those looking for WVU's tight ends to catch 30 or 40 passes, however, will probably still have a long wait. With a number of other speedy playmakers on the team, giving more touches to the tight end or a fullback reduces the number of chances a Noel Devine, Jock Sanders or Tavon Austin get with the ball. That's a balancing act that WVU tired to address a couple of years ago with the H-Back position, which was something of a cross between the fullback and tight end spots. Last year, separation between those positions began, and this year it looks to be even more defined, as the Mountaineer coaching staff tires to develop the tight end spot.
"I think there's a place to have the H-back kind of guy, but we probably need to get some more of the bigger on-the-line tight end kind of guys, and Tyler Urban is that. I think he's going to be excellent there," McMichael said.
Combined with a good blocker at fullback, the traditional tight end could help WVU's short yardage game improve even more than it did a year ago, when the Mountaineers solved many of their short yardage woes. Ryan Clarke, Ricky Kovatch and Matt Lindamood give WVU an excellent three-deep at the position, and Clarke is a solid ball carrier as well. McMichael, with his college coaching roots in the power running game, certainly isn't averse to getting a bit more of that attack in play – and with it, more playing chances for his tight ends.
"I think there's always a place for it, even with the spread," he stated. "You need it every once in while – the ability to just line up and knock someone out of there even if they know it's coming. You have to be good enough to do that. You get in goal line or short yardage, and you have to be be able to hunker down and get after some people, and to do that you have to have some tight ends who can block. It's nice to be in the spread and score from distance, and we are capable of doing that, but we have to be able to get the tight ends in there too."
Over the past couple of seasons West Virginia has gone from a team with no tight ends to one that expects to be able to win the line of scrimmage in short yardage situations. That's a short transition, especially when compared to the changes McMichael has seen and coached through. Still, even with all of the adjustments, there remain the basics that he, like just just about every coach, swears by.
"Techniques have certainly changed since I played, because back then we had leather helmets and weren't allowed to extend our hands," he joked. "But I do think a lot of the combination blocks and a lot of those things we did when I was here before we still do. We're always trying to learn another way to skin the cat and stay on the cutting edge of technique, but some things carry over from the past. Footwork may have changed some over the years, for example, but fundamentals never change. To win you have to be able to block on offense and tackle on defense and be sound in special teams."