By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia had just finished its Saturday practice in Wheeling and someone asked Shannon Dawson, the Mountaineers’ offensive coordinator, what he had just witnessed as his offense scrimmaged against Tony Gibson’s defense.
Dawson admitted he wasn’t sure.
“It looked somewhat like football at times, but obviously there are a lot of things we have to clean up,” he said.
The problem is that trying to put a football offense together without knowing who will be your quarterback is like trying to drive your brand new Bentley without knowing where the keys to the car are.
No offense works without a quarterback, but Dana Holgorsen’s offense is particularly quarterback heavy. With Geno Smith it is capable of scoring 70 points on anyone, even an opponent in a BCS bowl game.
Without him you can be shut out by Maryland.
To make matters worse, this spring Dawson is trying to put things together with the quarterback most likely to be his starter — Clint Trickett — unavailable to practice as he recovers from shoulder surgery and with the man most likely to be able to beat him out a newcomer in town — Skyler Howard, a junior college transfer — still trying to learn the ins and outs of the offense.
Paul Millard, who started a couple of games last year, is back, too, and Logan Moore, who was a wide receiver last year, is also at quarterback while freshman William Crest doesn’t arrive until August camp opens.
The job is open, to be sure, and on Saturday in Wheeling, Howard worked with the “ones,” which might say something, but it could just be to get him the most repetitions as they are force-feeding him so that come August he can compete on level terms with the holdover quarterbacks.
Make no doubt that Howard is being analyzed on a daily basis.
“He’s got a quick release,” Dawson admitted, “but it was hard to see because we never got into any kind of rhythm today. It’s hard to play when you are spinning.”
Just six or so practices in, things still are going to be moving fast for Howard.
“He’s got some intangibles, but he’s got to perform,” Dawson said. “Ultimately, someone has to win the job. When Clint comes back, he’s going to get reps, too.”
Not knowing who your quarterback will be makes things more difficult in the spring for the wide receivers, which is a position where WVU feels blessed this year.
“We got a bunch of guys, but we got to get the ball to them. That’s the bottom line,” Dawson said. “We got a bunch of guys out there … and they got experience.”
Experience is the key. A year ago WVU was trying to replace Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, who had taken almost all the reps the previous two years, leaving them using a number of talented receivers but inexperienced and trying to work things out while a game of “musical quarterback” was being played among Trickett, Millard and Ford Childress.
“I don’t think they got into any kind of groove until halfway through the season,” Dawson said. “Mario (Alford) didn’t even get into the right position until halfway through the season.”
Alford caught only 27 passes in 12 games last year but averaged 20.4 yards per catch, showing big play potential that included a 76-yard reception.
Alford was used in the slot early, typecast as Austin’s successor, but while he fit the physical requirements, he was miscast rather than typecast. It wasn’t until they moved him outside that he caught on to this big-time college receiver thing.
“At slot I was pretty sluggish, you know, trying to run through the ‘backers,’” he said. “But at outside receiver, I’m a straight-running guy. Playing outside’s pretty simple, so I felt more comfortable out there.”
With Alford and Kevin White leading the way among the returning receivers with big-play capability and Daikiel Shorts, who tied Charles Sims as the leading receiver with 45 catches last year, and Jordan Thompson as control receivers, WVU would seem to be solid at the position.
They will, however, need to get to start working with a No. 1 quarterback to develop timing and the nuances that receivers and quarterbacks come to have as they work with each other.
That is something that usually is done in the spring.
Dawson is blessed with depth at running back, including Rushel Shell, the Pitt transfer; Dreamius Smith, a power back; Wendell Smallwood, Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison.
“We got players out there,” Dawson said of the runners.
The result is that there are going to be a lot of options in the way the offense can operate this year, but perhaps the biggest difference is probably the main objective of improving the offense this season.
“We’re stressing on extending plays and being more mobile. With that, it can open up a lot more,” said Dawson.
That would seem to give Howard a bit of an advantage as he seems to be the one most likely to add such a dimension at quarterback.
“We’re also trying to get guys who can play running back and line up at wide receiver, like Charles Sims did last year,” Dawson said. “We’re trying to get two or three guys who can move around and that allows us to play fast.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.