Mountaineers Hope To Improve Red Zone Offense
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It was probably the most exciting — and telling — play of the 2016 season.
WVU had the ball in the Kansas red zone, third-and-five at the 16. Quarterback Skyler Howard took off to his right, cut down the sideline where he reached the three.
In his path was Mike Lee, the KU defender. He tried to hurdle but Lee’s shoulder pad clipped his leg in mid-air, sending him into a helicopter spin, the landing taking place at the one.
It was a daring, “I don’t give a damn about my myself” play by Howard, gaining 15 yards.
He came out of it without injury but WVU also came out of it with no points, for it would fail to score on four plays after starting at the one.
The red zone, it turned out, wasn’t the scoring zone for West Virginia last year and it might have been the difference between a 10-win and maybe 12-win season.
The numbers told the story. While WVU scored 80.7 percent of the time in the red zone, 13 of those scores were field goals and not touchdowns. Touchdowns came on just 57.8 percent of their journeys inside the 20 and that was seventh best in the Big 12 last season
“We settled for too many field goals the last two years,” Holgorsen admitted.
The reason could be found in Skyler Howard. While he was that courageous quarterback who would risk his body for a score, his talent pool didn’t include the throwing acumen to get scores in the shallow end.
“Our run game down there, I thought, has been good,” Holgorsen said. “Our pass game down there has not been good. Skyler, his strength was not sitting in the pocket and throwing balls into very, very tight spaces, which the red zone, the closer you get, the tighter the space and the tighter the coverage.”
Hence, an emphasis in this preseason on the red zone passing game, which the Mountaineers expect to improve for numerous reasons, beginning with the far more accurate and skilled passing of Florida transfer Will Grier, who takes over for Howard.
“It is a different game. Because the safeties are closer now, they can be more involved in the run game. Your targets have to change a little bit because they are going to outnumber you in the run game,” new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital explained.
“They don’t have to play it too honestly because they don’t have the threat of a deep ball being thrown over their heads. That’s when you have to be creative and get extra hats on the blocks. You try to outflank them in some way.”
The other aspect is in wide receivers, a group this year that fits better on the goal line in Ka’Raun White, Gary Jennings, David Sills and Marcus Simms.
“There’s not much room, so have to be really good on 1 on 1s down there and you have to be able to punch the ball in with the running game,” Spavital explained.
You prefer taller receivers who can go up and get the fade, that is often called but difficult to execute. In that area, one receiver has really caught Spavital’s eye.
“The one that has really impressed me is Gary Jennings. You’re looking at Ka’Raun and David Sills and Gary, that’s pretty good height out there,” he said.
Obviously, because everything is bunched, the play calling has to be different. You have to be able to power the ball in, hence WVU has begun putting in stuff with a tight end and also making use of powerful fullback Elijah Wellman.
But, in the end, Holgorsen wants to find a way to pass the ball into the end zone, which brings us back to Grier and his skills, especially on the fade, which is a looping pass into the back corner of the end zone that a receiver runs under or leaps for.
“The fade is a good play if you got a guy like Stedman Bailey,” Spavital said. “At Oklahoma State, we had Justin Blackmon, who could make that play.
“Will has to throw it right. There’s a timing aspect of it, too. Will has to take the snap, get the grip and throw it with a trajectory that the guy can catch it in the ‘bucket area’,” Spavital continued, conjuring up the image of a quarterback throwing a ball that drops into a bucket, a drill that actually is used.
“The receivers can’t just take off and run. They have to slow down their release and set up the defender so they can get to the bucket area.”
And when they get there, the ball is in the air and it’s anyone’s ball. They have to want it and go get it.