Sgt. Slaughter? Not exactly
MORGANTOWN - Judging by the first six practices of the spring, West Virginia's defensive line coach believes the best way to reach his players is through positive reinforcement and encouragement.
In other words, this is not your father's defensive line coach. Or last year's.
"It is,'' defensive end Will Clarke said, "a little bit different.''
Only a little bit?
Bill Kirelawich coached West Virginia's defensive linemen like the cigar-smoking, cursing, old-school coach he was. His rants were legendary, his voice one that boomed through an empty Mountaineer Field during practices no matter how many others might have been yelling around him.
And for the most part, his players loved him for it, no matter how gruff he was in conveying his message.
Erik Slaughter isn't exactly soft-spoken, of course. Few football coaches are. But he seems the antithesis of Kirelawich, his predecessor who - along with Jeff Casteel and David Lockwood - left West Virginia for Arizona in January.
"I'm a positive person. I don't like being yelled at and degraded,'' Slaughter said Thursday after WVU's final practice before a 12-day layoff for the school's spring break. "I perform better with a pat on the back.
"I'm going to push them hard and I'm going to work them hard, but I'm going to love them harder. We're going to be out there every day working, and there's no rule in football that says we can't have fun while we're doing it.''
There's more than one way to coach a group of big, hard-nosed defensive linemen, of course, but for the better part of the last three decades at WVU it has been the Kirelawich way. That usually meant that most of the positive reinforcement took place after the fact - after a practice, after a game, maybe not until after a season.
Throughout the actual process of coaching the line, there was mostly yelling. It was a Kirelawich trademark, and it worked, as witness the defensive fronts and players he produced.
Slaughter's way is just different.
"I think guys perform when they're confident and have confidence in what they're doing,'' Slaughter said. "A confident football player is a fast football player. Fast football players make plays, and that's the name of the game.''
As evidence of his positive nature, consider what Slaughter had to say about this year's defensive line after six practices. Keep in mind it is a rebuilding group trying to fill in for guys like Bruce Irvin and Julian Miller, and there is no doubt much work to be done.
But Slaughter refuses even to single anyone out, good or bad.
"They're all doing well,'' said Slaughter, who was hired only a couple of weeks prior to the beginning of spring practice. "I don't want to single anybody out. I'm proud of all of them. They're giving everything they have. They're trying extremely hard.
"We've all got room to get better, me included. But we haven't played a game yet so it really doesn't matter. What we're doing now is just preparing for that fight in the fall, and right now I'm proud of all of them.''
Don't for a minute, though, think that makes Slaughter a pushover.
"Don't get me wrong. I can be negative and I have a temper and can do things to get after people,'' Slaughter said. "But I try to keep it as positive as I can. My negative conversations are going to come more in [meeting rooms] behind closed doors and try to fix those things in that setting.
"I try to head things off. If you see a guy on film one day doing something that you don't like, before you get on the field and let it happen again you fix it in the meeting room. Explain to them why you want it done the way you want it done. And then go out and try to get it done that way.''
Slaughter, for one, said there's nothing at all wrong with the timing of the break, not even to the midpoint of the permitted 15 spring practices.
"I've never had a bad break,'' Slaughter said. "There's no such thing as a bad break except the one that comes at the end of the season.''
As for what the players might get into during a rare week away (they only get about three a year), well, you hope for the best.
"I don't worry about these guys. These guys won't do anything,'' offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson said almost sarcastically. "I only worry about myself.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.