“Explain the [new offense] install for me” asked long time reporter Greg Hunter to Neal Brown as he opened his Tuesday spring football press conference. “Explain the install” is something the fans have been asking since day one, since the offense has been non-existent in the three years Brown has been at the helm of the team. Explain the install.
Now, the Mountaineers are back, fully, into the Air Raid and its simplicity of a installation. Plug and play. Insert the disk, click on run and poof done. It’s that easy. Or maybe it isn’t.
“I would say that the run game, how we’re installing it, is a little bit different. Schematically, there are only so many things you can do with a run game so its not drastically different. We fully expect to be improved in that [area]. I think in the run game, for us, upfront, O-Line, tight ends, running backs, is we didn’t start the season off very well but once we got [past] the bye week and beyond, we were able to run the ball successfully against the team we probably should have but we didn’t run the ball against some of the elite defenses. For us to be successful and win those games against teams that are finishing above us in the league, we have to be able to run the ball versus really good, maybe even great defenses” - Neal Brown
That assessment is true. If you want to hang your hat on the fact that the Mountaineers turned a 2-4 season into a 6-6 season by winning 4 of their last 6 games, you could point directly to the fact that they faced a number of teams who ranked near the bottom of the nation, not just the league, in rush defense.
Kansas finished at 129 (out of 130). TCU finished at 122. Texas finished at 114. Those three were wins for the Mountaineers and in each game, the Mountaineers ran for at least 150 yards, 25 more than their season average. In the seven games the Mountaineers lost, they failed to have a 100-yard rusher. In the 6 games they won, they had a player rush for at least 98 yards. The solution seems simple, in order to win, West Virginia has to run the ball.
Running the ball, in theory, would open up the pass game, which by every metric and analysis was a struggle last year. The wide receiver room was split between quarterbacks, between play callers, between routes. The routes were either too complex or too simple and never fooled a defense. But now, with a new offense to be installed, the differences should help mitigate all of those factors.
“In the pass game, there are some things [offensive coordinator] Graham [Harrel] is teaching different, there are some different concepts. We’re doing some things different in the protection game. How we’re doing it, yes, it is different. Is it night and day? Probably not, said Brown on Tuesday.
For the three years Brown has been the head coach, the passing game has been lacking. I’m not sure you can say anything other than that. It has had its moments, like a 44 point outburst against NC State in 2019. Or the thrilling 38-31 win over a ranked Iowa State team last year, but those wins and those outburst of points and passes are the outliers, not the norm and so a different tactic is required. A night and day difference? Perhaps, but Brown doesn’t appear to think so.
The returning starters at the receiver position are Bryce Ford-Wheaton and Sam James. Both are experienced, both are older, and both still have something to prove. It should be no surprise they were singled out by the coach initially as the most consistent players in the first practice. A name to keep an eye on may be Preston Fox, who Brown said “made a bunch of plays”.
What may be a difference is the use of tight-ends, which haven’t been much of a factor so far for the Mountaineers. Due to transfers and needs at the position, the coaching staff brought in Brian Polendey, a graduate transfer who spent three years at Miami and a year at Colorado State. According to Brown, Polendey is “running with the ones” in part due to senior Mike O’Laughlins injury. Where Polendey is expected to factor in is his use in the run game, where his blocking is praised.
All of that is great but the big black storm cloud over Mountaineer football is in fact, the quarterback position. Just how quickly can they pick up the offense and prove that they are “the guy” or will they all take a back seat to JT Daniels, who is expected to visit this weekend? The quarterbacks - Garret Greene, Goose Crowder and Nicco Marchiol - are all young and inexperienced, but not without their talents. For the first time in Brown’s tenure here, and maybe even the first time in decades, West Virginia truly has the quarterback position up for grabs.
“We have three [quarterbacks]. A lot of times you get into these and its two, but we have three. We’re going to go through the spring and rotate them. We did it by age initially, so Garret went first, and then Goose and then Nicco. Rotate them through the day and try to get them similar reps.” The “reps” are generally how quarterback competitions are judged, by which player is receiving the lions share of the first team reps.
Brown suggested that it wouldn’t be a quick decision and that they would want to see each player take their turn, especially as they move away from shells [helmets only, or helmets and upper pads] and move into full team contact allowing the coaching staff to judge different elements of the quarterback’s progression.
“The next week we will start doing some team [drills] and we’ll evaluate how they drive the football. You chart a lot of things, completion percentage, scoring is one of them, decision making, but they are all going to have equal reps and equal opportunities as we move forward”
Just how much this three-day install and how quickly the players grasp and execute this offense will go a long way in determining just how far the Mountaineers go in 2022.