Glut of backs could alter WVU offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Ask Shannon Dawson what he's going to do with all the running backs West Virginia has assembled this season and the answer is simple.
The same thing the offense he and Dana Holgorsen run have always done with them.
"The offense doesn't change. What changes is the makeup of the team, the pieces,'' said Dawson, the Mountaineers' offensive coordinator. "So the focus of the offense might change.''
West Virginia's offense is widely considered a pass-first scheme, but that's not entirely true. In reality it's a playmaker scheme, like so many others in the spread era - get the ball to playmakers in space.
It just seems that wherever Holgorsen has gone - Texas Tech, Houston, Oklahoma State and WVU - the best way to do that was throwing the football.
That's likely to be the same this year, too, when West Virginia begins the 2013 season a week from today against William & Mary. But there could be more of an emphasis on getting the ball to running backs now, simply because the Mountaineers have so many.
That wasn't the case a year ago.
"There were times last year when we went into games banged up and maybe had just one really healthy running back. So at times we would go empty a lot,'' Dawson said, meaning no backs in the backfield. "We didn't run any different plays, we just ran them out of different personnel sets because that's who was healthy. So the focus is going to change because of the personnel we have. The pieces to the puzzle are different.
"Now, if you have a lot of running backs that are capable, you want to get those guys the ball in every way possible, as much as possible. You get the ball to your best players and if [the running backs] end up being the best players we're going to get them the ball.''
West Virginia will still throw the ball to wide receivers. That's a given. Even though the top three receivers from last season - Tavon Austin, Stedman Bailey and J.D. Woods - are gone to the NFL, the Mountaineers will go into the opener with perhaps as many as a dozen ready to try and fill their shoes.
But in Houston transfer Charles Sims, junior college transfer Dreamius Smith, juniors Andrew Buie and Dustin Garrison and freshman Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia might be better stocked at running back than at receiver.
If that turns out to be true - that the running backs are as strong or stronger than the receiving corps - expect them to get the ball. That could be in a variety of ways, from handoffs to short passes to lining up running backs as receivers.
"It doesn't matter how you get them the ball,'' Dawson said. "The important thing is getting it to them any way you can.''
There seems to be another advantage to what West Virginia has in its backfield this season, too, as it relates to the Mountaineers' style of offense. With the exception of Garrison, all of the running backs are fairly similar. While Garrison is a bit more lithe than the others, Sims, Smith, Buie and Smallwood are all fairly big backs capable of running between the tackles or getting the ball on the edge.
The advantage there is that defenses can't identify the back - or backs - in the game and assume they will run certain plays because of their styles.
"Obviously there's a difference between Dreamius running in between the tackles and Dustin. The body types are different and the skill sets are different,'' Dawson said. "But if you get Dustin in the open field he's pretty good. That's our job being smart on how to utilize people.
"Still, if [Garrison] is in the game, we can't do just this with him because it's not going to take long for those guys to know that he's either running this play or that play. They'll do it all.''
As for the other backs, Sims, Buie and Smallwood all seem to fit the versatile mold. Smith, because he's 5-foot-11 and 217 pounds, is perceived as more of a power runner, but even that is a misconception, Dawson said.
"Even in the spring, Dreamius was one of those guys that can do multiple things,'' Dawson said. "He's a very physical guy, thick guy, fast, solid. If they pigeonhole him [as just a power back] they're making a mistake. When he gets in the open field he'll outrun you as quick as anyone will.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.