New WVU Coaches Rarely Have Had To Break In Young QB
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Every spring is important for college football teams, as it lays the foundation for the coming season.
But for new West Virginia coach Neal Brown and his Mountaineers, this spring was especially critical, maybe as significant as any WVU has undergone in the last 50-some years.
That sounds like a huge overstatement, but before you dismiss it as so much hyperbole, hear me out. Combining a first-year head coach and a new starting quarterback has been a rare event in the last half century Mountaineer football history. It’s not just that Brown and his staff had to install their own schemes and techniques with a new team; at the same time they also had to start molding a new starting quarterback.
That’s a tough combination and not one other first-year WVU coaches have had to undertake in many decades.
Dana Holgorsen wasn’t even technically West Virginia’s head coach in the spring of 2011. He was still the head-coach-in-waiting at that point and wouldn’t completely replace Bill Stewart until later that summer. But whatever his title, Holgorsen inherited an experienced quarterback who would go on to become one of WVU’s all-time greats – Geno Smith. Smith had played as a true freshman in 2009 and started all 13 games for the Mountaineers in 2010. He was an experienced junior perfectly suited for Holgorsen’s system when Dana took over in 2011.
Likewise Stewart had an incredibly experienced and talented QB already on hand when he became WVU’s full-time head coach in 2008. Pat White already was one of West Virginia’s best ever by the time Stew moved up to the head coaching job, and White spent his senior season under Stewart’s guidance.
When Rich Rodriguez took over for Don Nehlen in 2001, Brad Lewis already had played in 23 games, and had been the starter the year before, leading WVU to the 2000 Music City Bowl victory in Nehlen’s final contest. Lewis wasn’t perfectly suited for Rodriguez’s offense, which needed a running quarterback, but another QB was already on hand who fit that role perfectly – Rasheed Marshall. Marshall had sat out his true freshman season in 2000 as a redshirt, but was ready to compete with Lewis for the starting job when Rodriguez arrived. Unfortunately Rasheed suffered a wrist injury in the 2001 opener at Boston College and would have to sit out the next six games before returning later in the season. But Lewis was on hand to provide an experienced bridge.
Nehlen’s first season at WVU in 1980 also featured a veteran quarterback, as Oliver Luck was heading into his junior season. As a true freshman in 1978, Luck had played behind Dutch Hoffman, but Ollie moved into the starting role in 1979, which was Frank Cignetti’s last as West Virginia’s head coach. Luck retained that job in Nehlen’s first two seasons with the Mountaineers.
Cignetti ascended to the Mountaineers’ head coaching job after the 1975 season following the departure of Bobby Bowden to Florida State. Cignetti had previously been the offensive coordinator for Bowden and when he moved to the top job, he also had junior quarterback Dan Kendra available. Kendra had been WVU’s starting QB in the 1975 Peach Bowl-winning season and would remain in that role in Cignetti’s first two seasons at the helm.
Likewise, when Bowden inherited West Virginia’s head coaching position from Jim Carlen after the 1969 Peach Bowl victory, Bowden also had a veteran quarterback at his disposal, Mike Sherwood, who had been WVU’s starter in 1968 and 1969, and would remain in the starter as a senior in Bowden’s first season of 1970.
Carlen’s first season with the Mountaineers was 1966, and he was the last time a new coach, prior to Brown, who also had to break in a new starting quarterback in his initial season. Allen McCune, who had been WVU’s starter in 1964 and ’65, had graduated by 1966, as his backups, including Ed Pastilong, also were not available by ’66. Thus Carlen had to break in an entirely new set of quarterbacks in his first season as head coach. Tom Digon got most of the starting work that year, though Bob Zambo and Pete Secret also saw action.
History shows an experienced quarterback helps a first-year coach a great deal, though it’s not a guarantee of success. Carlen and Digon went 3-5-2 in 1966, Bowden and Sherwood were 8-3 in 1970, Cignetti and Kendra were 5-6 in 1975, Nehlen and Luck were 6-6 in 1980, Rodriguez and Lewis were 3-8 in 2001, Stewart and White were 9-4 in 2008, and Holgorsen and Smith were 10-3 in 2011.
Now Brown is having to break in a new starting QB in his first season as WVU’s head coach, the first time that has happened in 53 years. Brown currently is working with three – Jack Allison, Austin Kendall and Trey Lowe. How will this work? We’ll know next fall.