A big part of my professional life is spent looking for opportunities for improvement. The process we use is simple - every so often we look at what we've done and ask ourselves the following questions:
- What did we do well?
- What did we not do well?
- What can we change about the way we're doing things to make ourselves more successful?
Football's offseason retrospective process is fairly similar. Sure you're going to spend a lot of your time on self-improvement through the strength and conditioning program, and every coach on the planet is going to dedicate at least some time to walking through the basics, but I would argue that the two most important things you can spend your time on are finding the correct answers for questions 2 and 3. The experience can be humbling, but is necessary for growth. Here are some things that I think probably have our staff's attention heading into Summer 2018..
"Explosive but not efficient"
We actually don't have to speculate about this one; both Jake Spavital and Will Grier have repeatedly mentioned this in their interviews as a point of emphasis for the offseason.
The casual fan might be a bit confused by the way this looks on the surface. After all, we averaged 6.35 yards per play (25th nationally) and 460 yards per game (20th) last year; could we really have been that inefficient and still moved the ball the way we did? However, when you dig a little deeper, it's obvious that the answer is "Yes".
In this case it's important to remember that averages are just that: averages. Consecutive plays of 20, 0, 0, and 0 yards yield the same 5-yard average as consecutive plays of 5, 5, 5, and 5, but in the former scenario we'd be punting while in the latter we'd be looking at 1st and 10. When you look at our poor 3rd down efficiency (33%, 111th nationally), plays per drive (5.5, 97th), and time of possession numbers (27:15 per game, 117th), it backs up the notion that we were way too boom-or-bust last year.
One way that I think we can help ourselves here is by recommitting to the running game. We were 49:51 run:pass last year which may feel pretty balanced, but too often it felt like balance simply for the sake of it, like we were almost saying, "Well we haven't run in a while, so we might as well.." It just didn't feel like we were running it with purpose, and comparing that number above to the 59:41 run:pass that we averaged over the previous two years really emphasizes how much our identity changed in 2017. Going back to the run now, with Grier and 3 of his top 4 receivers coming back, might seem like the last thing we should be doing, but it's something that I think could help improve on the above metrics for a couple of reasons.
First, running the ball helps keep you on schedule and away from the dreaded 2nd and 3rd and longs. You may prefer picking up 8 on 1st down with a quick-hitting pass, but what if you don't complete it? Now you're looking at 2nd and 10 and might feel like you have to pass again to catch up. Then you miss that one and absolutely have to pass on 3rd down. Before you know it you've gone three-and-out and are sending your defense back out there after 27 seconds.
Video Credit: Mike Casazza of EerSports.com
Running the ball should naturally improve our 3rd down efficiency, which should naturally increase our ability to sustain drives, as well. Don't believe me? Consider that Army led the country in rushing, 3rd down %, and plays per drive last year, or that our own 3rd down conversion rate was a full 8 points higher at 41% when were running the ball a bunch in 2015 and 2016.
Another obvious benefit of running the ball successfully is controlling the tempo of the game through time of possession. As mentioned above, we were 117th nationally last year in time of possession, and I would argue that our defense especially felt that number late in games. We haven't really been a team that grinds clock since Dana got here, but even an extra couple of minutes per game could have a big impact. Not only would it reduce the number of possessions for our opponents, but it would also allow our defense to get a little more rest, which is crucial for most teams not named Alabama or Clemson.
The game may have changed aesthetically over the past 20 years, but the recipe for success hasn’t. You still have to be able consistently pick up yards on the ground and stop your opponents from doing the same, and while there may not be a direct correlation between running the ball and winning, you'd be hard-pressed to find an elite team that doesn't do it well.
Stop the run
As for the second half of that adage, I'd have to think that anyone who watched us with more than a passing interest last year would be able to tell you what our biggest weakness was defensively. The 2018 Mountaineers finished 104th nationally against the run, allowing 204 yards per game on 4.9 yards per carry. You'd have to go all the way back to that dreadful 4-8 campaign in 2013 to see something even remotely similar, and even then we only allowed 191 ypg on 4.4 ypc. That has to change if we're going to come anywhere close to meeting our lofty 2018 expectations.
The good news here is that.. well actually there isn't all that much good news. The bad news is that we already appear to be headed in the wrong direction. The hope was that returning 5 of the 6 starters from our 3-3 stack would help clog up some of those previously open running lanes, but a rash of injuries and transfers has left a promising unit once again looking starved for depth, especially along the defensive front.
In my opinion, one of the most important things we can do in this situation is focus on the things we can control. The transfers and injuries suck, but what's done is done and we can't let the past define our development as we move forward. We have several experienced guys returning, and the word out of camp is that those guys are all improving themselves physically, but we need everybody to continue to step up and run with their opportunities. Still though, reality dictates that we have some tough decisions to make strategically if we want to stop last year's problems from turning into this year's problems.
One thing I think I think we can do is simplify our scheme a bit. The downside to that is obviously that simplifying things for ourselves means simplifying them for our opponents, but there are definitely some positives to be found, as well.
First, I'd argue that one of our biggest issues last year was guys shirking their own responsibilities by trying to do too much. Go watch Josh Jackson's 48-yarder last year, or Khalil Hebert's 67-yard TD - our lack of discipline turned two plays that could've been stopped in the backfield into back-breaking big gains. Keeping things vanilla may make us less exciting defensively, but it would also ideally make us less-susceptible to those kinds of explosive plays.
Second, we have guys coming in that I think can help us from a talent standpoint, but time and again we've seen first-year players struggle to grasp the complexities of Tony Gibson's system. And unfortunately we're just going to be depending on too many of them right away to be able to wait for them to be ready to do every single thing he might want them to do. Watering down our scheme will make it more accessible for those new guys, which will hopefully make easier for them to come in and make an immediate impact.
Finally, there's no law that says complexity is better. There’s a reason that cliches like K. I. S. S. (Keep It Simple, Stupid) exist, and it’s because they remind people that keeping things simple reduces the number of things that can go wrong. Nick Saban keeps things simple at Alabama. Dan Quinn and Pete Carroll kept things simple in Seattle. Turns out you can be quite successful with simple, provided that you have the right tools to do it well. And on paper, we do.
Spread the Love
A second area on offense where I might look to make some changes is in increasing the number of guys we get the ball to through the air.
Last year David Sills, Ka'Raun White, Gary Jennings, and Marcus Simms combined for 253 catches, 3743 yards, and 36 touchdowns, which represented 86%, 93%, and 97% of our production in those areas, respectively. No other team in the country fielded a foursome that even came close to matching that, and for most of the year it was a whole lot of fun to watch. Unfortunately though, it also meant that nobody on the team besides those four caught more than 10 balls. Now I understand that it's in a team's best interests to give the ball to its best players, and that another big part of this is just Will trusting certain guys more than others, which makes sense for a new QB in a new team. However, looking at the 19 teams that finished 2017 ranked ahead of us in total offense, nobody besides SMU (5) and Florida Atlantic (6) had less than 7 guys with more than 10 catches, which suggests to me that despite our output, we need to get more people involved.
The good news here is that help is on the way. TJ Simmons and Jovani Haskins offer two talented, experienced targets that we didn't have before, and guys like Reggie Roberson, Druw Bowen, and Dominique Maiden should be better in their second years in the offense. The focus shouldn't be to change what we do so much as it should be to add the ability to spell the Big 3 so that those guys don't have to shoulder so much of the load, and combining those five above with our talented recruiting class should put us in much better shape to do that in 2018.
On top of whatever happens on the outside though, there's one other change that I'd like to see with regards to our pass distribution, and that's getting the running backs more involved. Our backs only had 29 receptions between them last year, and that doesn't seem like nearly enough given the skill sets that we have available back there. Three of the four we have coming back can legitimately line up outside if necessary, and that's before you even consider what a guy like Leddie Brown will bring to the table. In my opinion we should be targeting these guys at least 6-7 times per game through the air, if for no other reason than to manufacture touches in space for guys who excel in it. There's no question that doing so would add yet another dimension to an offense that already figures to keep opposing coordinators up at night.
One final spot where we need to look to improve is in taking care of the ball. We gave it away 26 times in 2017 (116th nationally), which unfortunately meant that we were only able to win the turnover battle outright twice in thirteen games while losing it outright in 5 of our 9 conference games. Comparing that to what we did in 2016 (6 outright TO battle wins, 4 outright conference losses) makes it easy to craft a narrative to explain the respective win totals in those seasons. A repeat performance in 2018 would be inexcusable (not to mention disastrous) for a team with conference title aspirations. Fortunately, I do think there's a clear path to improvement here, and at least some of that improvement should occur naturally.
First, the graduation of Justin Crawford and departure of Chris Chuganov also means the graduation/departure of a healthy percentage of our fumbles. I'll always appreciate those guys for what they did here, especially Crawford, but an unfortunate part of both of their legacies will be poor ball security. Even Crawford's 331-yard explosion against Oklahoma was tainted by a fumble inside their 5 when a score would've made it 21-7. McKoy and Pettaway seem like they're a little more secure with it, so hopefully we'll be able to avoid some of those same issues in 2018.
Second, you'd expect Will to be much better with a full year in charge under his belt and most of his favorite targets returning. Dana has a strong track record of QB development from year 1 to year 2, and considering that at least half of Grier's 12 interceptions felt like the result of guys zigging when they should've zagged, I think we can expect the trend to continue this year.
How explosive we are defensively remains to be seen, but if Will can get rid of those miscommunications and the backs can be better than "bad" at ball security (and again, I don't think either of those things are unreasonable to expect), then we should be well-positioned to win quite a few more of those crucial turnover battles in 2018. I think limiting giveaways to somewhere around 15 (5-10 interceptions, 5-10 fumbles lost) would be a good goal, and if we can accomplish that, combined with improvements in some of these other areas, we could be in for an exciting few months come September.