MORGANTOWN - What might be the most important search third-year Coach Dana Holgorsen commences today is not for a player who will start at quarterback or fill any of the many holes on offense, defense and special teams.
This is instead a quest to identify the best five skill players on offense who Holgorsen can group with the new quarterback and the five offensive linemen, three of which will be new. That group of skill players could very well be a running back, a wide receiver, a tight end, a fullback, a slot receiver, a running back, a slot receiver, a wide receiver, a slot receiver and a wide receiver.
That’s what Holgorsen wants when preseason camp opens today.
Holgorsen will monitor a roster with many players capable of playing more than one position. If he can identify and advance those players, he can then use one formation on one play, hurry from the whistle to the next snap and then feature a totally different formation with the same personnel on the next play. Or he can bring a player onto the field that the defense recognizes from one position and then put that player at a different position to trick the defense.
“It’s about trying to figure out what they can handle,” Holgorsen said Wednesday.
“I have no idea what the offense is going to look like right now, but I’m excited about trying to figure it out and trying to figure out what they can do. We will gear our offense accordingly once we figure out what they can do.”
If the Mountaineers are going to contend with a shortage of talent after losing Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey to the NFL, then pace, versatility and the deception that comes with those features can help them close that gap.
“It’s about personnel groupings,” Holgorsen said. “Having guys come onto the field and the defensive coordinator doesn’t know where they’re going, that’s what we’re trying to get to. But it’s hard to do.”
Holgorsen hasn’t done this at WVU. He didn’t have enough depth at running back to experiment with a player in the slot. He had barely enough trustworthy receivers to fill out the normal positions. Bailey and Austin, simply put, were so good at their respective spots that it didn’t make much sense to move them around from one play to the next.
Bailey never left the left side of the field.
It took Holgorsen until his 22nd game with Austin to give him the ball as a legitimate running back, and even that was a drastic deviation from what Holgorsen prefers to do.
“The nature of the offense is to not do that,” Holgorsen said. “The nature of the offense is to get guys into a position they feel good about and are comfortable with and not move guys around. Catching a fade route over the left shoulder is a different skill than catching a fade route over the right shoulder.
“You’re trying to get guys into a position to do the same skill over and over and get good at it. That’s the backbone of the offense.
“With that said, I think the future of offense is more personnel related. It’s more of what we did with Tavon. 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.”
This team could embrace the future. Holgorsen believes a few players will be able to contribute to the offense and to befuddle the defense by lining up in various positions. He said he’s spoken to defensive coordinators who dread seeing that from an offense.
“A lot of defenses are going to try to (match personnel groups) as well as they can, and we’ve got some guys in the Big 12 defensively that are as good as it as anywhere in the country,” Holgorsen said. “Our job offensively is to try to disguise that, to try to put people in positions they don’t think are going to be there and be able to execute our offense regardless of where they line up.”
The personification of this tactic is Clay, the former George Washington High School star. Holgorsen has suggested Clay is the team’s best player, and it’s not because he runs the fastest, jumps the highest or has the best statistics. Clay stays on the field because he can play three positions.
Holgorsen said Charles Sims, the running back who has transferred from the University of Houston, will also play outside receiver. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Sims, the Big 12’s preseason newcomer of the year, caught 70 passes for 759 yards in 2009, when Holgorsen was the Cougars’ offensive coordinator.
“The more you do of that, you’ve got to be careful,” Holgorsen said. “There’s a skill point to it, a skill angle to it, where now you’re doing that five percent of the time and you can only afford to practice that five percent of the time, which means he’ll never master that skill. It takes a talented guy to do that, like Tavon. How many guys do we have who can do that? I don’t know yet.”
Holgorsen said there are options that will allow players to move from running back to slot receiver, but he said junior running backs Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison are not in that group.
“I don’t think they’re skilled enough,” Holgorsen said. “They’re decent receivers out of the backfield, but pure slot? I haven’t seen that. Now, we haven’t trained them there either because we lacked depth at running back. With better depth there now, maybe those guys are able to slide out and do some things like that.”
Holgorsen said freshmen Sheldon Gibson and Jacky Marcellus and junior college transfer Mario Alford are players who could move from slot receiver to play running back and that junior college transfer Ronald Carswell can play outside and slot receiver.
“I wouldn’t rule out anything,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of evaluating going on and guys are going to be excited about trying other things.”