MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Having spent this Wednesday morning following Saturday’s West Virginia University’s annual Gold-Blue Spring football game trying to figure out what would fit in well as a midweek column, I landed upon the team’s running game.
With a new offensive coordinator on the scene, the focus of the spring has certainly been upon his version of the “Air Raid” offense he was installing, and with no accomplished returning running back to take over the load that Leddie Brown had to bear over the past three seasons, this aspect of the game received little attention from the media.
We were caught up in a quarterback scramble that includes the pending transfer of J.T. Daniels, a highly-regarded prospect with a resume that includes stops at USC under new coordinator Graham Harrell and Georgia on a national championship team; in the efforts to rebuild the secondary that had been a ruptured artery carrying its talent elsewhere, and in the promise of a big play offense centered around Daniels and a stable of talented receivers.
The running game was getting little or no respect, a point that was driven home to me as I began to research and googled “West Virginia running game”.
The top return?
“Running Game Has Turned Into Mountaineers’ Formula For …”
And the second return?
“WVU running game falls short in loss to Oklahoma State … ”
Eagerly, I opened the first story only to find that it spoke not at all about WVU’s football running game, but instead about the way WVU’s baseball was setting team and individual base stealing records to win games.
So, I jumped to the second reference, which surely had to be about last year’s embarrassing football loss to Oklahoma State. The score was 24-3 with the Mountaineers gaining only 78 yards on 33 carries.
It was hard to grasp that Google had interpreted “West Virginia running game” as a baseball term, not a football term. Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez were flabbergasted.
This was a school who built its reputation on running the football from A (Amos) to Z (Zereoue) and the likes of Avon Cobourne, Pat White, Steve Slaton, Quincy Wilson and so many others in between.
The spring game did nothing to offer clues to whether whatever had ailed WVU running the ball had been cured, as the rules kept the defense from tackling against the first team offense to help guard against injuries.
Considering that today’s game now keeps a statistic designated YAC (either yards after catch or yards after contact on runs) that is growing in importance, there was no way to know if the runners were going to be able to pick up such precious yardage.
Coach Neal Brown admitted as much in his post-game press conference.
“It’s always risk and reward on that. Do you tackle? Do you not tackle?” he said. “We just made the decision that we weren’t, we were just going to ‘thud’ it. But without question, that plays to the defense’s hands because they’re just getting into position and not having to finish the play.
“It is harder to run the ball. I don’t know what our stats were, but we wanted to – on purpose – put some pressure on the quarterbacks and throw the ball more today than we normally would.”
Tony Mathis is at the head of the running back pecking order after having taken the wraps off his talent late in the season and putting together a 100-yard game against Kansas and showing potential in the bowl loss to Minnesota, but there are others there who offer alternatives, something that has been lacking the last few years.
“Top to bottom I’d say this is the most talented room I’ve had since I’ve been here,” running backs coach Chad Scott said.
In addition to Mathis, it features Lyn-J Dixon, a graduate transfer with breakaway speed from Clemson who averaged 8.8 yards on a national championship team as a freshman; and two impressive young players in Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson.
What has happened is that this group has bonded with the experienced WVU offensive line that returns intact and, with Mathis taking on the leadership role, impressed Scott with its progress.
“Those guys have been around Tony and seen how he works,” Scott said. “I see the chemistry. I see the communication.”
He pointed to a moment in a scrimmage the week before the spring game.
“Tony Mathis yells out ‘Mike check. Front check.’ Zach Frazier turns and says, ‘You got this … you got that.’ It was a beautiful thing to see. Before they were uncertain making them calls, like ‘What’d he say?’ Now they are turning around, making the calls, pointing.
“That’s a big deal. That shows chemistry, trust between one another. That was huge, guys in the backfield knowing who they are going for and saying we’re going to have those guys and vice versa. The biggest thing is chemistry and trust.”
With what appears to be an offense set up to throw effectively, it will loosen up the linebackers and the safeties for an offensive line that should be reaching a peak and that should help create the running room has been so visibly absent the past three years.
“We improved a lot since last year, but I don’t think we’ll ever be able at the point where we’re satisfied … no,” said starting guard James Gmiter. “It’s a profession and job where you have to be constantly getting better and you can’t ever take a day off and relax and say you’ve made it or you’re perfect. You never get there.”