By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
This is something of a difficult spring practice to grasp for West Virginia University football, in part because it so inexperienced with its players in key positions and because it has a newly formed coaching staff that is learning the system that is being used — which is somewhat different from a year ago — while learning each other and the personnel.
It is also an important spring, maybe the most in some time, for WVU is coming off a season that was far below expectations, a season where the defense was the worst in the school’s history, so much so that a record-shattering offensive season barely allowed it to stretch beyond .500
It was a learning season for everyone, a move from a Big East Conference that was not very good into a Big 12 Conference that offered all sorts of challenges that no one really expected, even some of the coaches like head coach Dana Holgorsen himself, who had spent a good part of his career as a Big 12 assistant.
“It is hard to play defense in the Big 12. It is hard to win. It is a good conference,” he admitted after Tuesday’s practice.
That was not to say they shouldn’t have won, at least more than they did, but they were facing some experienced, accomplished teams and just weren’t ready to face the challenge.
“I am not making excuses. There were a lot of games, two of them that we should have won; it is just hard to win. College football is competitive, and the Big 12 is competitive,” Holgorsen said.
You can’t win with just offense. WVU proved it last year. Baylor proved it last year. They scored 63 points in their first conference game … and lost … to West Virginia, which scored 70.
The Big 12 has schools like Oklahoma and Texas, traditional national powers, and rising powers like Oklahoma State and Kansas State, meaning that to be a winning team you must be a complete team, able to win games 7-6 as well as 70-63 and all areas in between.
“You must pay attention to details on all three sides of the ball,” Holgorsen said. “You must have a group of guys that are going to play and act disciplined. Not only on the football field, but in life in general because you are going up against a bunch of people that are good teams and well coached, good facilities and winning traditions.”
And that is what he is now trying to establish here this spring and is doing it from the bottom up. There is no more Geno Smith, Tavon Austin or Stedman Bailey. Chris Neild and J.T. Thomas and Robert Sands are pages in history now.
Holgorsen says he understands what is necessary and maintains that WVU is on par with most of the conference, even coming off last season.
This was his answer when asked what he learned from last year’s ups and downs, records set and disappointments.
“That we are not a whole lot different than the rest of the people in the Big 12,” he said. “There were nine bowl teams in the Big 12, and seven of them were 7-5. The reality of the situation is we are in a conference that has a whole lot of parity.
“Everybody needs to understand that. What I mean by everybody is all the coaches, and going through it (in 2012), all our players are going to understand it a little bit more,” he continued. “We have to be incredibly comfortable with all three of our schemes, which we are, and we have to coach them at a high level, and we have to demand that our team buys into what we are saying.”
That they are selling some different things this year and that they are different salesmen selling it, especially defensively, makes it a challenge.
“We have a program full of guys that are ready to step up and play when they are ready to step up and play,” he said of the players.
As for the coaches?
“I like our staff right now. I like our staff cohesion, and I like what we are doing on all three sides. I like the fact that the players are buying in. It doesn’t mean that we are going to win any games; it means that everyone needs to understand what the challenges are and not take anything for granted.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.