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Imperfect Geno makes good use of his options

MORGANTOWN - Even Jake Spavital, whose charge it is to make Geno Smith a better quarterback day in and day out, had to admit that the glaring weaknesses in his game have dwindled considerably.

Or at least that's the case based on what he saw Saturday.

Oh, he didn't do so willingly, mind you. Coaches never do. No matter how ridiculously efficient the performance, there's always room for improvement.

So when Spavital, West Virginia's young quarterbacks coach, was quizzed on what to do in order to make Smith's 32-for-36, 323-yard, four-touchdown passing performance against Marshall even better, he was quick with the answer.

"What do I do?'' Spavital said, repeating the question. "Well, he could have been 36 for 36.''

Dig a little deeper, though, and one finds that even Spavital is unable to find much fault at all in a performance in which Smith threw as many touchdowns as incompletions. In fact, he can't even fault Smith for completing "only'' 88.9 percent of his passes.

"Two of them we thought were drops and two of them I thought he was being smart and throwing it away,'' Spavital said of Smith's four failed passes. "So yeah, that was pretty much perfect, although you can never say that.

"You can always keep improving.''

True. There's no such thing as perfection. OK, so this Smith-led offense is averaging 69.5 points and 622 yards over the last two games. And yes, he's completed 81 percent of his passes for 730 yards, 10 touchdowns and no interceptions against Clemson in the Orange Bowl and Marshall in Saturday's 69-34 season opener. To boot, Smith is averaging 7 yards on his 13 rushes and hasn't been sacked.

Even his decision making has been nearly flawless. Think about this stat: Eight different players combined to score WVU's 10 touchdowns against Marshall (in the Orange Bowl it was six players combining for 10 scores). Even throwing out Isaiah Bruce's fumble return, that's seven offensive players scoring - Shawne Alston and Stedman Bailey twice each, Smith, Tavon Austin, Andrew Buie, J.D. Woods and K.J. Myers.

"I think that's a pretty impressive stat right there,'' Spavital said. "It means a lot of kids are getting a lot of touches.''

Indeed, and that variety is almost entirely determined by Smith. On every pass play he has as many as five potential receivers and on many plays he has a run-pass option with the ability to give the ball to a running back instead of throwing it.

"When you go back and look at the tape you see him hand it off, hand it off, throw it, hand it off, throw it, throw it, throw it, hand it off. He just did a great job of mixing it up,'' Spavital said. "That's pretty hard to coach because a lot of it's just how the game's going. We were running the ball well, so Geno went after that pretty quickly, but at the same time throwing it out there and keeping the defense honest.''

So if his decision making is nearly flawless and his execution the same, what else is there?

Well, the ongoing step is kind of like that line in a kindergarten evaluation: Works and plays well with others. Smith certainly gets a check mark there, but can he do it even better as the season goes along and he becomes more familiar with what amounts to his classmates?

"Oh, yeah,'' Spavital said. "And we got some of those questions answered about personnel. Because of the way we ran the ball, I think he's more comfortable handing it off, and when he throws the ball he's getting questions answered about Squirt [freshman Jordan Thompson] and J.D. [Woods]. J.D. had some pretty big catches and so now I think Geno's going to be relying more on him.''

That's going to be key to both Smith's improvement and West Virginia's progression on offense. Smith has always been comfortable with Bailey because the two have played together since high school. He quickly learned to trust Austin, too, for obvious reasons. He knows when and where they like to get the ball and how they like it delivered and he has the confidence in them to give it to them in crucial situations.

Woods and Thompson? Not so much. Alston and Buie? Perhaps he's just not quite as comfortable yet with them. Ditto the freshmen who come off the bench.

But as he throws or hands off to them more and more, that familiarity and comfort level will rise. In a close game, Bailey and Austin are going to get a lot of defensive attention because everyone on the planet knows how Smith likes to get them the ball. But imagine if he's just as comfortable throwing it or handing it to almost anyone else, too?

"The one thing I was pleased with was we got some questions answered with personnel,'' Spavital said. "J.D. had a good game, so I think he's going to be a guy Geno's going to rely on even more. The same way with the run game. The more games we play, the more he's going to get comfortable with the players around him.''

And a step closer to the perfection that will never come.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.


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