By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It started with Dana Holgorsen making a passing reference — if you will pardon the pun — to the gunslinger mentality Paul Millard sometimes shows in running the West Virginia offense.
Holgorsen was noting that Millard had been making more bad — and, conversely, more good — decisions than either of his other two quarterbacks, and this was coming at a time when Millard was trying to win a starting job that Holgorsen maintains would go to the QB who best “reduces the poor decisions.”
“He will still do some bonehead stuff, as they all do,” Holgorsen said.
And the boneheaded stuff, he maintained, came from his upbringing as a quarterback.
“There’s a fine line,” he said. “The Texas gunslinger mentality ... I mean, you don’t throw for 4,500 yards in high school as a senior without not being able to take some risks. But you don’t want to handcuff them, either, because if you handcuff them and don’t give them the ability to make decisions and pull the trigger they will play scared. We don’t want to get them to the point where they’re afraid to make a mistake. That’s not what we do offensively.”
That last sentence seemed to echo throughout the team room in Puskar Center.
“That’s not what we do offensively,” Holgorsen had said, which led to a most important query.
What does Holgorsen do offensively?
It is easy to characterize him as a gunslinger, even though his roots reach back into Iowa.
His football roots, though, spring out of the Texas Tech program run by Mike Leach.
So here he was, almost in conflict, a coach who throws the football around as much or more than any coach in college football trying to limit the gunslinger approach in his quarterbacks.
His offense, of course, has been christened the Air Raid offense and his passing yardage and completions break records wherever he is, which suggests a certain recklessness and daring in his approach to offense.
“I’ve taken a few chances,” he admits.
But it is not true to think of him as a gunslinger.
In reality, his passing attack is somewhat conservative, many of his passes being little more than long handoffs, an extension of a safe running game.
For example, how many of his passing yards a year ago came on that simple little touch pass from Geno Smith to Tavon Austin in the backfield, a pass that may travel no more than six or eight inches, a pass that cannot be intercepted and that if dropped is a simple incompletion?
Football Study Hall charted Holgorsen’s passes last year and found that a full third of them were thrown behind the line of scrimmage and just 93 went more than 10 yards downfield in the air. That is 93 pass attempts, not completions.
One might call that a conservative, safe approach to throwing the ball, hardly a gunslinger approach.
So just what is Holgorsen’s approach?
Strangely, he’s not sure he has an answer.
“I get asked all the time what kind of offense I run, and I don’t really know. Is it the Air Raid? The spread? Are you running the ball more? Shoot, I do not know; whatever works. If it works, do it again,” he said.
That is going to be very important this season, depending upon how his three unknowns at quarterback take to running the team. It seems as though he has a stable of talented receivers, maybe even some who can challenge Austin and Bailey in ability and certainly a deeper group.
But can he find or train the quarterback to get them the ball as accurately as Geno Smith, making the right decision on which receiver to hit?
See, this year he has a better running option than a year ago, three backs who have gained 200 or more yards in a single college football game in Dustin Garrison, Andrew Buie and newcomer Charles Sims from Houston, along with a power back in Dreamius Smith and a power back kind of player in Cody Clay.
If the quarterbacks can’t carry the load the same way it was carried a year ago, there is an option Holgorsen sounds like he’s more than willing to use.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.