By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Perhaps the most important spring practice in Dana Holgorsen’s tenure as West Virginia football coach comes to a conclusion at 1 p.m. today when the annual Gold-Blue Spring Football Game is held at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium.
The gates open at noon and tickets are $10 with net proceeds benefiting WVU Children’s Hospital.
The Mountaineers are trying to bounce back from a 4-8 season as this spring was used to rebuild a defense that has struggled over the past two seasons, ranking higher than No. 100 in the nation both years, while reshaping an offense that is still trying to evolve from the riches brought by quarterback Geno Smith and receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
All three, along with Bruce Irvin and Chris Nield are among many former players who have returned to spend some time in Morgantown and to attend the Gold-Blue game.
On this date, fans can be like the coaches and concentrate on five areas of the Mountaineers to see if they have made progress in areas that needed work:
Quarterback: True, the man most likely to quarterback the Mountaineers this year, Clint Trickett, has missed the spring recovering from shoulder surgery that rendered him ineffective for much of last year after transferring away from the team that won the national championship, Florida State.
He is not yet ready to throw, messing around before practice throwing left-handed. He does have freedom of motion to go through the throwing motion without a football, something he does as he works on footwork, but it will be summer before he begins throwing.
Still, there has been a spirited competition going on between holdover Paul Millard, who started two games last year, and newcomer Skyler Howard, a California junior college prospect out of Texas, who will try to take Trickett’s job when camp opens.
While both made progress during the spring, in the last scrimmage the two had similar problems facing a pass rush.
“I thought we got caught with the ball a couple of plays, Skyler and Paul both,” offensive coordinator/quarterback coach Shannon Dawson said. “Just put the ball in play. You’re standing back there. You’ve got to have a clock in your head. There was one time Paul got taken back on a sack — just put the ball in play. There were a couple times with Skyler — just put the ball in play.”
Neither, along with Trickett, are highly mobile, Howard probably the best at running with the football, but they all must improve in this area.
“Both guys have to play within their ability,” Dawson said. “Obviously, Paul’s not the most mobile guy, but he’s worked extremely hard this offseason. That was one point we emphasized with him. You don’t have to be the most mobile guy, but you can work to maximize your mobility in the weight room.
“So it’s all about moving the football. If you can move the football, I’ll give you a positive. If you don’t move the football, I’ll give you a negative. All the other stuff doesn’t matter.”
Running backs: WVU is loaded at the running back position and Holgorsen has tried to find ways to maximize what he can get out of them.
This includes using a diamond formation that he worked out so he can have three running backs on the field at the same time, using running back Wendell Smallwood as he did Charles Sims last year, putting him in the backfield and at slotback; going with big backs Dreamius Smith and newcomer Rushel Shell from Pitt or small backs Dustin Garrison, coming off a huge scrimmage in Charleston, and Andrew Buie, or using tight end/slotbacks Cody Clay and Elijah Wellman.
“I don’t know if anybody has ever been through a season and said, ‘Man, we just had too many running backs that year,’” Dawson said. “That’s never happened. It’s happened the other way a lot because through the course of the season those guys get nicked up. You better have a lot of them.
“You mix in four or five guys at a position that can play — if you want to play — that’s the baseline for competition,” Dawson continued. “The more competition you have, the better it’s going to make everybody perform. If we can get more positions crowded, then we’ll be doing a good job.”
The pass rush: This was totally lacking last season. The team had only 16 sacks in 12 games, and the departed Will Clarke had six of them.
So emphasis is being put on pressuring the passer in new defensive coordinator Tony Gibson’s defense.
“We’re going to turn our guys that can get after the quarterback loose,” Gibson said. “When it’s a third down situation, we may be playing with 10 guys on their feet and one down guy.”
The scheme has changed from a 3-4 to a 3-3-5 to allow more freedom to bring blitzes off the edges from linebackers and defensive backs.
Look for linebacker Brandon Golson, who had four sacks last year, and safety/linebacker K.J. Dillon to be turned loose — if not in the scrimmage before the watching eyes of Alabama scouts, then in next year’s opening game.
Cornerbacks: A year ago WVU’s pass coverage was inadequate, in part because they didn’t know what to do with Daryl Worley, then a talented freshman whom they moved around to different positions.
This year he’s at cornerback and they are looking at him as a shutdown corner, a talented athlete with great size and mobility.
But the overall group is expected to improve because they have changed the style of coverage from shuffling to backpedaling, which offers more mobility.
“Look at the makeup of our corners,” cornerback coach Brian Mitchell said. “Brandon Napoleon was a quarterback in high school. Daryl Worley was a running back. Ickey Banks has been here, so he’s a little further ahead, but Terrell Chestnut was probably the only true cornerback when he came in. Nanay (Kyeremeh) was a safety. You’re not talking about guys with a great background in coverage. They’re picking it up. They’ve picked it up much better this spring than they did last spring.”
Safety Karl Joseph: In truth, if you are going to watch anything on the defensive side of the ball, the most entertaining thing to watch is the junior Joseph, who is the team’s hardest hitter.
He made himself known last year and now, being used in the Bandit position, he has really been banging ball carriers and receivers all spring.
“No. 8, he’s a missile now,” Gibson said after last Saturday’s scrimmage, speaking of Joseph. “You know, he has no neck. He explodes from the toes all the way through the top of his head. He’s done it as a freshman, did it a bunch last year and today, as soon as I heard it, I knew he was in on it somewhere. He jumped up from the bottom of the pile.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.