By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The focus of West Virginia University’s fans as spring football practice begins today is clearly one which figures to be a long, hard-fought battle for the starting quarterback job, but that is far too narrow a focus.
Indeed, replacing Geno Smith is a monumental task and one that probably will not be resolved until the week before the opening game against William & Mary, and it is almost absurd to expect a first-year starter, no matter who wins out, to be able to produce the numbers a seasoned senior heading to become the No. 1 quarterback selected in the NFL draft put up last year.
There are generally considered three top candidates for the job in returning backup Paul Millard, redshirt freshman Ford Childress and incoming freshman Chavas Rawlins, but Fairmont’s Logan Moore is there after transfering from Fairmont State University and will try to climb into contention.
“This is the first quarterback competition that I have had personally since my first year at Houston,” coach Dana Holgorsen said. “Coming here, we obviously had our starter in Geno, and at Oklahoma State, we had our starter in (Brandon) Weeden.”
But at Houston there was no starter, and Holgorsen noted it took spring practices and 15 in the fall before they decided on a guy named Case Keenum, who wound up being good enough to be in the NFL.
“Once spring is over, a lot can happen over the summer. You have lots of tape to sit there and watch. You have 15 more practices that you can look forward to, so I would hesitate to do that (name a starter in the spring),” he said.
But, while it starts with the quarterback, it doesn’t end there, and Holgorsen and Co. are going to have as big a chore trying to rebuild a receiving corps that lost not only 1,000-yard receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey but the third top receiver in J.D. Woods.
In truth, the top receiver returning is Jordan Thompson, who latched on to only 13 passes as a freshman for just 6.5 yards a catch and nary a touchdown. The entire returning receiving corps caught just 24 passes for 178 yards, about 60 percent of the yardage that Stedman Bailey caught passes for in a single game.
“Offensively, coach (Shannon) Dawson and myself have been studying the cutups of what we saw and what we need to improve on. We are pretty much critiquing every aspect of what we do offensively — what we feel like we need to get better at and what direction we need to go based on what our production is,” Holgorsen said.
“We obviously lost a lot of production that we have to replace, which is just the nature of college football. You are going to lose good players, and it is going to be good for your program to see young guys like Geno (Smith), Tavon (Austin), Stedman (Bailey) and Joey (Madsen) move onto the NFL — that is going to be positive for our program. By no means will we panic whatsoever. We need to get guys in here and we need to coach those guys up.”
The offensive picture is complicated by having lost the entire heart of the offensive line in guards Jeff Berk and Josh Jenkins and center Joey Madsen, who seems to be NFL bound along with Smith, Austin and Bailey.
That creates an interesting scenario for a team that traditionally throws the ball 60 percent of the time or more often.
“Probably the strength of where we are at right now is the running back position. That is where all our production is returning,” Holgorsen said. “You have Dustin (Garrison) and (Andrew) Buie who have played a lot of football. You are adding Dreamius Smith and Wendell Smallwood that are looking fantastic in the offseason.
“Cody Clay is another guy that will line up back there and will do some good things. I feel good about that position as far as what those guys are doing, and we are going to lean on them for some leadership stuff.”
So it is that on the offensive side of the ball there are auditions being held as if it were a Broadway production being put together, an old play with a new set of producers. Indeed, Holgorsen’s cast is being shaped by a group of new coaches who have more to learn than the players themselves.
This doesn’t worry Holgorsen.
“It hasn’t affected us one bit,” he said. “Defensively, we had our staff set right there around the (coaches’) convention, so those guys have been meeting for seven weeks. We feel like we are in great shape there.
“Offensively, I don’t know if you guys know this or not, but we have run the same offense for a while. Coach Dawson and I are continuously looking at it to see what we have to do to be better, but from a coaching change standpoint, it’s nothing to worry about.”
Yet it is an unknown, for the defections were many and their replacements coming from all areas of the country. Offensively in the last week or so before spring ball started the offensive line coach, Ron Crook, a Parkersburg native who coached in an entirely different type of offense at Stanford, was hired, while just Friday JaJuan Seider, a former WVU quarterback, was brought in to coach the running backs.
Dawson himself, long an advocate of Holgorsen’s offense, moved from wide receiver coach to quarterbacks and offensive coordinator, something he believes will prove to be no problem at all.
And it better not be because in the end the quarterback runs this show, and the offense goes as he goes.
That’s where the attention goes because right now it’s all an unknown.
“Paul has more experience. He probably understands the offense a little bit better than the other guys, but that doesn’t mean that we are going to give him more reps because it is not where they are at right now; it is where they end up in six months,” Holgorsen said, speaking of Millard.
“Ford is very motivated at this point right now. It is hard to be a redshirt-freshman quarterback, so he wasn’t nearly as motivated a year ago as he is right now; he is doing good.”
And don’t leave the freshman out.
“Chavas is where both those kids were a year ago and two years ago just being new and trying to soak it all in, learning things and hearing things for the first time. I haven’t seen him take a snap yet in college, so we are going to have a lot of opportunities to evaluate these guys.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.