There may be no more intelligently-written material on college football than the analysis one finds at Smart Football. Chris B., who founded the site, and also contributes to Grantland, has written extensively, and very well, about the concepts of the Air Raid offense, and Holgorsen's version of it. With that in mind, I reached out to him for answers to three questions about the shocking lack of production from WVU's offense this season. Chris was kind enough to answer each at length.
JP: With half the season in the books, WVU ranks 79th in total offense, 94th in scoring offense, 93rd in passing efficiency, and 80th in rushing. Further, the Mountaineers rank 83rd in yards per play, and an abysmal 96th in yards per point. Each of these rankings far and away represents an all-time low for any offense guided by Holgorsen. We are all aware of how much talent we lost from last year's squad...but Holgorsen has never experienced this kind of precipitous drop-off. As you have mentioned, in the past it didn't seem to matter who was at quarterback and Holgorsen's offenses would just keep humming. Why do you think WVU is having such profound trouble this year?
CB: Any time you have a drop off in production like that it's an "all of the above" type of answer: They lost all of their production from last year and the new guys are, at this stage at least, not ready for primetime. There are schematic issues that I wonder about, but the primary driver of the dropoff is clearly talent, and obviously part of that is who they lost, but it's also a recruitment and player development issue. I haven't studied WVU's roster religiously but I know there was a general lack of numbers and depth when Dana arrived, masked somewhat by some excellent top-line talent, but Dana's recruiting on offense hasn't been particularly fruitful either. In particular, 2012 WVU signed nine receivers or running backs, only two of whom -- Jordan Thompson and Devonte Mathis -- are even still on the roster. A quick skim of the 2011 class shows that it hasn't really produced many contributors, either. Every school has whiffs but two years of few results is crippling given that the cupboard was bare when he arrived.
The big benefit of the Air Raid style of offense is supposed to be in player development: all those practice reps over time help guys develop into key contributors. And I've seen that first hand at various levels; there's a reason that many NFL teams now use many of the drills that Hal Mumme, Mike Leach and even Dana developed years and years ago. Yet that development hasn't happened with some of the young guys on WVU's roster. And it's really hard to rely on JUCO guys on offense; these kinds of "systems" are "plug and play" when they have guys in the program over time. Two of Baylor's key contributors, quarterback Bryce Petty and receiver Tevin Reese, were Baylor recruits all the way back in 2009 (both greyshirted that year). Bryce Petty is a junior who has been through four spring practices under Art Briles.
And the last thing is all of these spread offenses, whether it's Oregon's or Baylor's or Holgorsen's, run through the quarterback, and WVU just doesn't seem to have a guy they are comfortable with on the roster currently. Dana had a specific strategy of only recruiting one quarterback a year because if you take more than one, one of them transfers out. That's not irrational, but it's hard given that the only quarterback on the roster Dana inherited was Geno Smith.
JP: As you mention in your post on Holgorsen's version of the Air Raid, the offense is so simple that it can be installed in just three days, and that the core of Holgorsen's practice model is ample repetition. With our triumvirate of qb's this season, we keep hearing rumblings that none have quite reached a comfort level with the system even as they practice well. If the principles of the offense are easily grasped, what aspects of the system do you think might be causing our quarterbacks such consternation?
CB: I have to admit that the entire thing about "communication" issues with Trickett is a bit odd. Dana's explanations seem to focus on the very process of Dana signaling plays to Trickett and him just not understanding the signals, while also indicating that he doesn't really understand all the reads in the offense, or what to look for to audible plays, either. That is clearly important but I've never heard such communication as the primary reason for a quarterback's struggles, though watching Trickett does indicate he isn't in tune with the offense yet.
Keep in mind, too, that Texas Tech is running a very similar offense (Kingsbury coached under Dana and Kevin Sumlin at Houston, and Sumlin turned the offense over to Kingsbury once Dana left for Oklahoma State) with a true freshman walk-on quarterback who didn't enroll at Texas Tech until the fall. Maybe it's unfair speculation, but that leads me to think that Trickett has just had a uniquely difficult time learning the signals and reads for an offense that has for years been prided on its simplicity.
Yet that said, there are other ways to communicate plays, even in a no-huddle environment, and good coaching is adapting to your talent. Wristbands with plays on them, those funky Oregon picture boards, or some other methods could be an improvement if the hand signals just aren't working for whatever reason -- even if this hasn't been an issue for Dana for fifteen years across fifteen quarterbacks. As an extreme alternative, Dana's former colleagues and fellow Air Raiders Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin ran their entire offense through their center at Louisiana Tech. A bit late in the season for this, but desperate times call for desperate measures, and WVU does now have a senior at center.
It obviously leads to the larger issue that WVU really doesn't have a quarterback they can consistently rely on. I didn't end up watching either of the games Childress started -- though his statline against Maryland wasn't inspiring -- but Millard's physical limitations ensure he's not a long term answer and Trickett, while clearly having some moxie, seems really hampered by not understanding or being comfortable in the offense, and the way he sprayed deep balls in scattershot fashion against Baylor was odd (though I know he is dealing with a shoulder).
JP: Finally, to turn the prescriptive... The rational fans in our base recognize that college football is a game where problems such as these frequently can't be solved in the course of a single season, because many times, the real issues are with talent and maturity. Take, for instance, WVU's defense this year (...last week's beatdown at Baylor notwithstanding). It is performing much better this season than last largely because of an influx of JUCO talent. Better players equal better results. And better players who have had a lot of game experience clearly improve a team's chances at winning. Holgorsen gets paid millions for the innovations he has brought to the offensive side of the ball. He rose through the coordinator ranks at top speed to become a head coach, and I still think he was an excellent hire for West Virginia. Also, I firmly believe he hasn't just forgotten what he has been doing successfully for several years now. But as an informed viewer looking at the present state of the WVU offense with fresh eyes, say you had a chance to sit down over beers, or Red Bulls, with Coach Holgorsen...what do you think might say, or suggest, if he asked for your opinion?
CB: I think the jury is clearly still out on Dana as a head coach, and I think one of the intriguing things about him is that I think he'd admit to, and agree with, that sentiment. There are lots of little schematic things I'd tell Dana to throw in (my two cents): streamlining and packaging the running game together a bit more cleanly; building in more counters and bootlegs to the fullbacks and tight-ends to keep defenders off the runners; getting back to more quick/fast screens to build up quarterback and receiver confidence and to get athletes in space; some ways to package runs and passes together to keep the QB reads simple; and to get the running backs involved in the pass game a bit more. I'd like to think those things would help, but I don't think those things explain, or would fix, the big dropoff. It's not that his system is still so amazing -- Dana was arguably setting the curve in 2010, but it's clear that that's not really the case anymore, driven in part by the fact that he's tried to react to how many teams emulate what he has done on offense -- but it's good enough if they can fix the technique and talent.
My biggest advice is that Dana needs to formulate and atriculate, if he hasn't already, a vision for what West Virginia will be and how to get there. Art Briles took over Houston and Baylor -- two downtrodden programs -- and said this is what I want my program to look like, and he has done it. WVU was and is a very solid program and Dana could still develop into a solid HC and improve the program, but I'm not sure he's articulated that vision. Exacerbating that problem has been that his offensive system was so successful back at Houston and Oklahoma State and in the Orange Bowl that everyone copied it, and the thing that made him unique -- his offensive system -- is no longer enough by itself.
With so many new parts and inconsistent coaching, you can't really analyze this team until the year is over. Last year Baylor was 3-4, and then 4-5, before finishing 8-5, and carrying that over to a 4-0 start this year. At this point WVU could go in either direction. I don't have a clue.
Being a head coach at a place like West Virginia is a privileged and rare position, and, given all the changes, it's a challenging one too. Dana and his team will have to rise to that challenge soon.
Thanks very much to Chris B. from Smart Football. Be sure to check out his excellent work at Grantland.com, and follow him on Twitter @smartfootball.