By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It came as something of a shocking pronouncement the other day when West Virginia University football coach Dana Holgorsen suggested that Cody Clay is his best football player.
This was somewhat shocking for Clay certainly does not fit the image the Holgorsen offense has projected over the years, being greyhound sleek and living off far more finesse than muscle.
Indeed, Holgorsen sends quarterbacks and wide receivers to the National Football League, players like Geno Smith and Tavon Austin.
You watch his teams perform and you imagine there is a sign hanging outside the locker room prior to preseason tryouts which reads: “Bruisers need not apply.”
Yet here is Clay, part fullback, part tight end … a man whose shoulder pads would have completely enveloped Austin, were he to try to put them on.
But Holgorsen was not speaking out of school when he began heaping the unexpected praise on Clay, for he has come to realize the value that comes with someone who can play multiple positions and perform more as a jackhammer operator than a ballet dancer.
“I think the future of offense is more personnel related,” the coach said. “It’s getting guys like Cody Clay, who can play slot, tight end and backfield stuff, to try to do something different and try to gain an advantage on the defense from a matchup or tempo standpoint.”
Holgorsen’s offense, you see, is leaning toward being more multiple this season.
In altering his coaching staff he went away from a line coach who featured zone blocking to Ron Crook of Stanford, who was more into power blocking with double teams.
At the same time, he saw the value of having Clay’s power running and blocking along with his ability to catch the ball as just one of what has become a dazzling array of backs, three of whom have compiled collegiate games of 200 or more yards.
That would be Andrew Buie, Dustin Garrison and newcomer Charles Sims, who has done that twice while also proving himself to possess receiver-like hands.
You look at the backfield and you have those three, each different in his own way, along with Clay and then a junior college newcomer who also offers power in Dreamius Smith.
Certainly, there are numbers, but that isn’t the key to what they are trying to put together.
“I don’t know if more is better, but the ability to play multiple positions is better because with guys like Cody, you don’t necessarily have to sub out to get in different sets,” offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said. “You have a guy whom you can get in heavy sets and who can go right into the next play.
“That creates a little different element on the defensive side of the ball because they can’t sit there and say ‘OK, they’re in 20 personnel,’ or they are in ‘10 personnel’ or they are in a ‘tight end set.’ They can’t tell. Cody can play anywhere.”
It’s almost like Peter Sellers performing in the movie “Dr. Strangelove” and assuming the role not only of Dr. Stranglove but Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake and President Merkin Muffley.
“It’s the same with the other running backs,” Dawson said. “The more we can get them to move around and play different positions the better. Some have the ability to do that and some don’t, but I think the same personnel grouping in every different set is probably the most important thing we’re doing.”
And what makes it interesting is that while formations may change and personnel may play different roles in different groupings, little else changes with the offense.
“The blueprint is the same,” Dawson said. “It looks a lot more complicated on the outside looking in because we keep it pretty simple for those guys. It’s not like they are doing a whole lot different set of things when we move them around. We’re just trying to create little matchup problems within the offense.
“The more we can do things to keep the other team playing a base defense, that our main goal. If it’s tempo, it’s tempo. If it’s personnel, it’s personnel, but we’re going to try to have answers to make guys play in base defense.”
Playing a base defense means the offense knows where defenders are lining up, where they are blitzing from, what kind of coverage to expect.
And Cody Clay plays a huge part in this.
“We like Cody on the field. That’s the bottom line,” Dawson said. “He’s one of our more solid offensive players by far. He does a lot of things good. As coaches we like him on the field. We trust him and we are going to keep him out there.”
That’s fine with Clay, just so long as he doesn’t have to pay a bit of attention to the platitudes being tossed his way.
“My parents told me about (Holgorsen saying he was his best player). I haven’t listened to it, and I don’t want to listen to it. For me that’s a lot of pressure. I don’t like to listen to all that stuff. I’d rather go out and play,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.