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Mitch Vingle: Has Holgorsen fixed WVU’s ills?

AP photo
WVU coach Dana Holgorsen

MORGANTOWN — WVU coach Dana Holgorsen took care of housecleaning on Thursday.

He dealt with the “lie in recruiting” comment made Monday that was clearly in jest. He spoke of the immediate team schedule. He spoke of personnel moves.

In regard to the latter, Holgorsen intimated his staff is still figuring out starters at positions like tailback, cornerback, linebacker and defensive line.

What legions of Mountaineer fans want to know, however, is if he’s figured out what went so wrong last season. Or, rather, if he’s figured out how to fix what went so wrong last season.

On Thursday, Holgorsen spoke to some of that. Sure, there was the regular hyperbole put forth by most coaches. But if you cut a swath through that, there were morsels of meat.

To start, Holgorsen dealt with his preseason camp setup. A change has been made there.

“Everybody kind of has the same amount of days to tackle and have live contact and all that,” said the coach. “We’ve done about the same amount as last year. I’ll tell you what we changed, though, is what’s going to happen next week.

“Last year, we had a pretty heavy first school week. ... I felt like we were tired going into game week. So we’re going to practice a true game week next week. It will be just like the next week. We’ll have a heavy Tuesday. We’ll still put on the pads and practice Wednesday. But then we’ll teach them how to practice Thursday, how to practice Friday, how to travel Friday and how to have a game day on Saturday. I think that will get our legs underneath us a little bit better.”

The idea is to take a load off players that have to move, get books, find classes, etc., in addition to practicing. Perhaps the tweak isn’t a bad idea considering WVU struggled in its first game last season against William & Mary and the first game this season is against Alabama.

Yet it is a tweak. The bigger picture is of more concern. Holgorsen was hired for his offensive genius, yet there was nothing brilliant about last season’s Mountaineer offense.

“It was miserable,” Holgorsen admitted Thursday. “[Defensive coordinator] Tony [Gibson] and I were talking about it the other day. Those dynamics I don’t anticipate ever happening again in the next 30 years of coaching, or however long I’m fortunate enough to be able to coach.

“We had three new coaches that had never been with us before. We had issues at quarterback that have been very well documented. We had six or seven skill kids who were in the program for the first time. That’s just a dynamic that’s not good.

“I thought we did a pretty good job up front of pulling it together with some older guys. But the timing, the continuity, the chemistry just wasn’t there. Looking back, you study and try to make some changes. I think we’re way ahead of where we were a year ago. Time will tell how we do.”

Holgorsen seems to believe more experience will cure many of last season’s ills. His offensive players are honing instead of being taught.

“Big difference,” he said. “Night and day.”

The coach pointed to the offensive unit’s tempo work.

“We worked two-minute [drill] the other day and it was like we’d been working it all along,” he said. “The worst thing you can do on offense when you stink is to go fast. It just stinks real quick. I’m comfortable going as fast as we want to go now.”

Where I dish credit to Holgorsen is in his analysis. He and his staff cut their own swath and found the not-so-fertile ground from last season.

“We’re talking about offensive efficiency,” said the coach. “We were middle of the pack last year in offensive yards per game and play. But we were dead last in what matters: third downs, fourth downs, turnover margin and score-zone rate. Good offenses are the ones good in those situations. Great offenses are the ones efficient when it really matters. Florida State was the most efficient red-zone team in the nation last year at 97 percent. I would say that’s pretty dang good. When they got down there, they scored.”

The reigning national champs were indeed No. 1 in red-zone offense, hitting paydirt on 97.3 percent of their attempts, to be specific.

WVU? Well, it did average 411 yards, but, as Holgorsen pointed out, it didn’t punch the ball in, averaging 26.3 points in the score-a-palooza Big 12. In turnover margin, West Virginia wasn’t last in the Big 12 (Texas Tech was), but close, tying for 86th place nationally at minus .33. The Mountaineers tied for 77th nationally in red-zone offense. They ranked No. 113 in third-down conversions. And in regard to fourth downs, WVU was dead last nationally, converting but 4 of 18 (22.2 percent).

What is Holgorsen doing to fix the ills this go-round?

“You have to understand the offense and execute when it gets hard,” said the coach. “It’s hard on third downs. It’s harder on fourth downs. It even gets harder when you get closer to the goal line. So being able to execute efficiently when things get hard is what good teams are made of.”

By the way, Holgorsen said Paul Millard would probably start the season No. 2 at quarterback behind Clint Trickett. It doesn’t sound like the coach will redshirt talented freshman William Crest, but it also doesn’t sound like Crest will be used in any type of Wildcat formation.

“We’ve never done it,” Holgorsen said. “That’s not to say I’m against it, but I’ve never had a guy who could do it. In addition to that, we’ve always — with the exception of last year — had a quarterback who was the main guy that was pretty good that we didn’t want to take off the field.

“I think it can be harmful. It can disrupt your flow. If you have a clear-cut, main guy, which Clint is — he’s playing extremely well — there’s a comfort level that’s good. Pulling him off the field wouldn’t be appropriate.”

But back to the theme. Holgorsen has identified most of last year’s trouble spots.

“We had our problems defensively too,” he said. “When it was third down, we weren’t very good. We were last in the league on third downs.”

Yep. Defensively, WVU was No. 92 nationally in holding teams on third down (42.7 percent). That was worse than Kansas and Kansas State. On fourth down, the Mountaineers were tied for No. 117, allowing success 75 percent of the time. Only Rutgers, Eastern Michigan, Southern Miss and UAB were worse.

Holgorsen even pointed to the kickoff teams, which also were awful, saying they have been points of emphasis.

So give him credit for identifying the problems.

In a couple weeks we’ll begin to see if they’ve been housecleaned as well.

Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, mitchvingle@wvgazette.com or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.


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