By Cam Huffman
Though Jake Spavital is getting most of the attention because of the fact that he’s taking over the playcalling duties from head coach Dana Holgorsen, Spavital won’t be the only new face around the Mountaineer Field this spring. Doug Belk has joined the West Virginia football staff to coach defensive backs, and Tony Dews is taking over as the running backs coach.
For Belk, the move to Morgantown is entirely new. A Georgia native who played at Carson-Newman University, which is a Division II school in Jefferson City, Tenn., Belk began his coaching career at Valdosta State (2012-13) and then spent the last three seasons as a graduate assistant at the University of Alabama. Everything Belk knew about Morgantown, W.Va., prior to his arrival a few weeks ago, came from his former boss, Alabama head coach Nick Saban. A native of Marion County, Saban knows northcentral West Virginia well.
“He always told stories about West Virginia, coming from a coal mining town and working at his dad’s service station,” recalled Belk of his former boss. “I’ve heard West Virginia stories. After I got hired, he told me a funny story about how great West Virginia was and that one good thing was that I didn’t have to go into his high school (Monongah), because it’s no longer there.”
What Belk learned from the five-time national champion, though, goes far beyond the best places to get pepperoni rolls. Learning from a man that is widely considered one of the best coaches in the history of the game has prepared Belk for this next step.
“I worked with Saban directly in the secondary, so it was obviously very beneficial for me to just be able to be under one of the best coaches of all-time, from a management standpoint and a football standpoint,” said Belk. “The way he is as a leader has been a good reflection on me.
“It’s as advertised. He’s very into developing the coaches, as well.”
Although it wasn’t nearly as recent, Dews also cut his coaching teeth under some college football legends. One of his first coaching gigs came as a graduate assistant at WVU, working under Don Nehlen from 1999-2000 and then under Rich Rodriguez in 2001.
“Coach Nehlen and that whole staff were really good to me,” said Dews. “At that time, I worked on the defensive side of the ball with Coach (Steve) Dunlap, Coach (Donnie) Young, Coach (Bill) Kirelawich and Coach (David) Lockwood. There was a lot of experience on that side of the ball that had a lot of success here at West Virginia, playing for a couple national championships. I didn’t understand how fortunate I was at that time to work with guys that were as established as those guys were in the profession. Seeing how those guys treated the players and how the players reacted to them as coaches, they all came back to see Coach Nehlen and Coach Kirelawich. Daily, you could see the impact that he had on their lives, and that’s part of coaching. You can impact young kids’ lives.
“To be here when (Coach Nehlen) won his 200th career game (in 2000) was exciting. When I got here and understood where he came from, his days at Michigan and that football tradition, it obviously made it very exciting to say I was part of a staff with Coach Nehlen. Now to say that I worked with a College Football Hall of Famer is unbelievable.”
That wasn’t Dews’ most recent stop in Morgantown, though. In 2007, the Clifton, Va., native returned to WVU as a full-time assistant coach, working with the Mountaineer wide receivers under Rich Rodriguez. He was in town only one season, before following Rodriguez to Michigan and eventually Arizona.
“I haven’t had to use a GPS yet,” said Dews of his return to a familiar location. “I know the area, although it’s changed quite a bit. It seems like there’s a lot more to do around Morgantown. There’s a lot of new buildings, shopping centers and homes. There’s some additions to our building that wasn’t here when I left. So that’s exciting. Being a part of the Big 12 Conference has helped upgrade the program. So it’s been a pleasant surprise and a great feeling.
“I tried to think professionally, does it help me with some of the goals I have for myself,” he continued of his decision to leave Rodriguez’s staff at Arizona and come back to WVU. “When I had a chance to sit down and talk to Coach Holgorsen and Coach Spavital, I thought it was a good decision. The opportunity to coach a different position helps me from a professional standpoint. Then I added in the opportunity to get back closer to home. My kids are getting older, and they’ll have an opportunity to be around grandparents and cousins.”
That’s not the case for Belk, who is making the opposite move, setting familiarity aside to embrace a new challenge in an unfamiliar spot. He travels only with GPS and hasn’t ventured far from Mountaineer Field.
“I’ve been pretty close to the facility trying to get acclimated a little bit,” he admitted. “I finally got a place, so I think I’ll be seeing a lot more of Morgantown soon. I’ve been here a couple of weeks, and the weather hasn’t been too bad. I’ve been lucky so far.
“Obviously the tradition, and then the style of play is intriguing for somebody that is coaching defensive backs. I accept it as a challenge. The scheme itself is a little different, but the coverage is basically the same.”
The fresh start for Belk doesn’t just mean a new city. WVU returns a grand total of zero cornerbacks with any starting experience.
“There’s not a ton of experience, so it’s a good opportunity for me to develop those guys and have a chance to get to know them,” he explained. “There’s not a lot of bad habits, because a lot of them haven’t played much.
“Everybody has a clean slate. I’m interested in their work ethic and their attention to detail.”
Dews, on the other hand, is blessed with plenty of returning experience in his new assignment. Justin Crawford, who led the Mountaineers with 1,184 rushing yards and four touchdowns last season is back, as are a couple of young backs in Kennedy McKoy (472 yards on 73 carries) and Martell Pettaway (260 yards on 49 carries), who made a name for themselves as true freshmen in 2016.
“I’m fortunate to inherit a group like this, and I’m excited about the challenge,” said Dews, who will be coaching running backs for the first time in his 20-year coaching career. “I’ve had a chance to watch the games from last year. I’ve seen them in the weight room and running around in conditioning. It’s a great looking group of kids. They’re all put together really well. So I’m excited. Until we get out on the field with a real football and pads on, you don’t know what you really have. I want them all to feel like they’re starting with a fresh slate, so it’s all about competition at this point.”
And as far as the new position group, Dews isn’t concerned about his ability to adapt.
“I’m excited about it,” said the former Liberty University tight end, class of 1996. “No. 1, I believe coaching is teaching. If you can teach, you can coach. I feel confident in my ability to teach. I’ve been coaching for a little over 20 years now, and I feel like I can adapt. Working with Coach Rodriguez, I stayed in the room with Calvin Magee, who I feel like is one of the best running back coaches in the country. I spent a lot of time with Calvin talking football. Part of coaching is seeking someone out that you feel confident in their abilities. I’ve done that and will continue to do that.”
A former tight end who has coached everything from offensive line to linebackers, and the bulk of his career teaching wide receivers, Dews knows the game from all angles, and he understands the critical nature of his new position.
“There’s going to be a time in every game where you’re going to have to run the ball,” he explained. “You can’t be in 10 personnel with four wide receivers and run the ball. You give too many advantages to the defense. So you’re going to have to have a fullback and tight end in the game.
“There comes a time when everybody in the stadium knows you’re going to run it, and you have to do it. So having guys like Eli (Wellman) and (Trevon) Wesco is going to give us an opportunity to do those things. Sometimes you have to play good old fashioned football. It helps the defense when you can run the ball and be effective. You’re implementing that toughness that every program talks about.”