By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
You can say what you want about Dana Holgorsen as a coach, and surely there are grounds to be critical after slipping badly in his second season at West Virginia University, but you are treading on shaky ground if you are being critical of what he can do offensively.
It is precisely for this reason that it is foolhardy to write off this coming season offensively even though he lost three of his five starting linemen, his three top wide receivers, two labeled potential NFL stars, and a quarterback who shattered all the school’s passing records and seems destined to be the first quarterback selected in the draft.
True, the backups are mostly untested at the skill positions, but when you have a coach who might border upon being an offensive genius it is safe to assume that he knows not only how to bring out the best in his players but to cover up the worst in them.
He already has begun this spring looking into ways to change his offense, aware that the special skills of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey no longer reside in his locker room, which could force him to take a more ball-control approach to the offense, one where he may want to work the clock more than in the past and eliminate chances of interceptions.
Already a master of the short passing game, last year far and away leading the nation in throwing passes that were in the air no more than four yards — a full third of WVU’s passes qualified here — expect Holgorsen to expand the run game.
“To be honest, when you break in a new quarterback, you’re going to lean on the run game. It’s just the way it is. It’s a good time to be a running back at West Virginia,” Holgorsen said as camp opened.
And this year he has running backs.
To begin with, and perhaps most important, Dustin Garrison is completely recovered from a knee injury that first sidelined him, then slowed him last season.
How important is he?
As a freshman he ran for 291 yards.
Not for the season … in one game.
Unfortunately, at that time, Holgorsen had his passing game at full tilt, and over the next six games Garrison was able to gain only 300 more yards combined.
Garrison is ready to get back at it. In fact, he felt the last three weeks last season he was full go but didn’t really get the opportunity.
“I felt like my mind was ready to get back out there but my body still had a little catching up to do,” he explained, when asked what was hardest about last year. “Every week I started feeling better; the last three games was when I was about 100 percent. I felt like I was ready, but I wasn’t getting the amount of reps I wanted.”
This year, while there will certainly be an increased emphasis on the running game, there also is increased competition as Andrew Buie showed himself to be capable a year ago while gaining more than 700 rushing yards and a junior college transfer, Dreamius Smith, has arrived on the scene and is an early camp sensation, being a different kind of running back at 220 pounds than the 180 or so that Garrison and Buie go at.
It isn’t like Holgorsen hasn’t made good use of his running backs over the years.
“That’s always been a key component to the offense,” he said. “In my two years at Houston we had a 1,000-yard rusher. At Oklahoma State, we almost had a 2,000-yard rusher.”
That, though, was easy because there was such a big threat of the pass that teams could not gear up to stop the running game when it was used.
This season is different. Opponents will be trying to put WVU in passing situations until the quarterbacks and wide receivers prove themselves to be potent enough to be a threat
“I feel like if we do a great job running the ball, it will help the quarterbacks read the offense more, make the defense play the run more and open up the passing game. If we do the job we have to as running backs, we’ll be successful as an offense,” Garrison said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.