Football’s Offensive Future Involves Variety
For the first seven years of the Dana Holgorsen reign over Mountaineer football, tight ends weren’t a huge part of its offense.
Most of the time WVU didn’t have more than one scholarship tight end on the roster. Other than Holgorsen’s first season of 2011 with an inherited tight end in Tyler Urban, who caught 20 passes that year, no West Virginia tight end has more than 10 receptions in a season. And for the past two years, the Mountaineers’ lone tight end, Trevon Wesco, has just one catch each season.
But now heading into his second year as WVU’s offensive coordinator, Jake Spavital is remaking parts of the Mountaineer offensive roster. The main change is at the tight end position, where West Virginia now has four scholarship players in Wesco, former Miami transfer Jovani Haskins and two true freshmen, T.J. Banks and Mike O’Laughlin.
It’s all part of the evolution of offensive football, in Spavital’s opinion.
Holgorsen and Spavital both have roots in the spread passing attack, but each sees that the game is changing. Running the football is much more important to them than it used to be, as they try to achieve a balance between what happens on the ground and the air.
For Spavital, the days of the pure spread are in the past, as defenses have adjusted. He’s now looking for balance, and believes the best way to achieve that is with multiple tight ends who can all block and catch with equal efficiency. That way the offensive personnel groupings don’t tip off what’s coming.
“When Texas A&M got in to the SEC (in 2012), no one in that league knew how to defend spread offenses, and that’s why they had such immediate success,” recalled Spavital, who became the Aggies’ offensive coordinator and quarterback coach in 2013 after spending the previous two seasons at West Virginia.
“But now everyone is running at least some spread concepts,” he added. “You still want to be creative, though, and that’s where the RPOs (run/pass options) come in. The RPOs have become very successful, and now the NFL is running it. The Philadelphia Eagles run it on nearly every play last year, and that changed their game.
“Now where do you go with it? To me, with the mixture of personnel groupings with tight end bodies allows you to be multiple. You can be uptempo spread, or you can huddle and go with heavy sets. I think you have to keep defenses on their toes. Then in the course of a game, if you find something a defense has trouble defending, then you stick with that. But you have a wide variety to pick from.”
West Virginia’s offense struck a pretty good balance in 2015 and 2016. It rushed for 228.2 and 228.4 yards per game in those two seasons respectively, while passing for 251.5 and 257.2 yards per game. But last year, WVU’s passing game became more prominent, averaging 309.3 yards per game, but it’s ground attack took a step backward, averaging 150.3 yards per game.
Spavital wants to improve the latter without diminishing the former.
“I think if you want to win a championship, you have to establish the run,” noted the 33-year-old from Tulsa. “I think that’s where we struggled a bit last year. When you look at the great teams that win Super Bowls and win national championships, you have to be able to both run and pass effectively.”
Part of the process of improving WVU’s rushing game will be in the ability of Mountaineer quarterback Will Grier to get West Virginia into the proper play at the proper time.
A vast majority of fans view a quarterback’s ability strictly on what he does with his arm and/or feet. But for coaches, the plays a QB makes with his mind are just as important. That’s why dealing with quarterbacks can be different at times than other positions.
“I don’t think you coach quarterbacks differently, but you do communicate with them differently,” explained Spavital. “Coaching quarterbacks is more about communication, give and take. Other positions are more regimented; the rules are the rules. But quarterbacks have to adjust on the fly. There are a lot of bullets thrown at those kids.”
“A lot of people don’t understand how hard it is to sit back in the pocket and process everything,” he added. “It’s my belief that that’s the hardest thing to do in sports. That’s why they get paid so much money at the professional level. When you see a good quarterback, they stick in the NFL for a long time. They are so hard to find. There is a lot of pressure on quarterbacks. When our guys throw an interception, I don’t usually yell at him, because 25 million people are already upset with him. I don’t need to add to that. We get them on the sideline and work through the situation. Both physically and mentally they are challenged every play.”