By Brian McCracken
Shortly after West Virginia ended its 2016 football season, Dana Holgorsen took some time to evaluate his performance as a head coach and the program as a whole. Holgorsen, who had just finished his sixth season at the helm for the Mountaineers, joked that he was looking through family portraits one day when he saw a disturbing trend: a man who hadn’t aged well since arriving at WVU in 2011 and had experienced his fair share of hair loss from year to year.
The most likely culprit of said hair loss? The added pressure of calling plays in addition to managing all other aspects of the Mountaineer football program. So after giving it some thought, the 46-year-old head man decided it would be best to hand over the playcalling duties, a decision that would eliminate some of the game day stressors and enable him to approach his job more like a CEO does. The decision, which no doubt wasn’t an easy one, was a pretty big revelation considering the fact that Holgorsen had made his name as one of the most innovative offensive minds in football dating back to his days at Texas Tech, Houston and Oklahoma State from 2000-10.
Of course, in order to hand over the playcalling reins, he would have to bring in someone he trusted and who could make a seamless transition onto West Virginia’s coaching staff. Considering those two variables, no candidate was more qualified than Jake Spavital.
A Tulsa, Okla., native, who will turn 32 on May 1, Spavital had previously coached quarterbacks for the Mountaineers in 2011 and ‘12 before leaving to become the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M, a job he held for three seasons before heading west to take the same position under Sonny Dykes at the University of California a year ago. And although the Golden Bears’ offense was lethal (358.8 passing yards per game, which was fourth in the FBS ranks), Dykes was let go at the end of the 5-7 season, meaning Spavital was in need of a new venture.
So Holgorsen did what any good coach would do, he started recruiting Spavital. But instead of calling the 31-year-old coordinator himself, Holgorsen made his first call to Spavital’s wife Meghan (Morris), who is a native of Belle, W.Va., and a former Mountaineer gymnast.
“Around the time of the bowl game, I think Dana was tinkering with his duties and thinking about giving up play calling duties and becoming more of a game manager,” Spavital recalled. “I think that’s when the conversation started escalating. He reached out to my wife to see if she would be interested in coming back to Morgantown. It went from there, because she’s a West Virginia girl, and I was dragging her to Texas and California. I think she’s just as excited to be back as I am.”
After some reshuffling of the West Virginia staff, Jake was named the Mountaineers’ offensive coordinator and just like that the he was back in Morgantown battling Mileground traffic once again. Upon arriving, it didn’t take him long to see the growth and improvements that the University City had made in just four years.
“It’s been an easy transition,” remarked Spavital. “You can tell the economy has really grown with the baseball field, everything out by (Interstate) 79, all of the new hotels and the Suncrest Town Centre. You can really tell the city has been growing.”
Much like Morgantown, Spavital has spent the last four years improving and growing as well.
“After I left following the 2012 season, I wanted to go out and try it on my own,” explained Spavital, who had worked directly with Holgorsen as a graduate assistant at Houston (2009) and Oklahoma (2010) before following him to WVU to become a full-time assistant in 2011. “I thought over the course of three years at Texas A&M and one at Cal, I grew as a playcaller and as a coach. Over those years, Dana and I have had many conversations about philosophy and how to move the ball and all of those years of conversation and me doing it on my own has led to coming back to Morgantown.
“I think you learn from everybody. Every experience you go through, you learn and grow as a person and as a coach. You learn from being in different conferences, too. I was in the SEC for three years and then the Pac 12, and I got to see a whole different style of play. In the Big 12, you kind of see how the schemes are, and when you go into other conferences you have to learn how to play differently. You see a lot of bigger bodies in the SEC, and in the PAC-12, you see everything from Stanford all the way to Oregon. That’s two completely different mindsets.
“I was fortunate enough to be around (Texas A&M head coach) Kevin Sumlin and to see how they approached certain things and you compare how you did that in the past and you can use that to make you better. I’m very open to new ideas and the main thing is to get everybody on board. I have done a lot of growing up in the last four years.”
In 2013, he took over an Aggie offense quarterbacked by sophomore sensation Johnny Manziel. Under Spavital’s tutelage Manziel’s completion rate rose to 70 percent, he threw for 4,114 yards (316.5 ypg) and tossed 37 touchdowns. Although Manziel did not repeat as the Heisman Trophy winner in 2013, he actually improved in every statistical passing category under the direction of Spavital from his Heisman year of 2012.
While Johnny Football made the decision leave College Station after two phenomenal seasons, the Aggies offense kept on rolling without him. In 2014 Spavital worked closely with quarterbacks Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen. The two blue chippers lit up scoreboards, as they combined for 39 touchdowns and led an Aggie offense that averaged 455 yards and an SEC West leading 28 points per game. Texas A&M finished the 2014 season with a 7-5 record and a 45-37 victory over West Virginia in the Liberty Bowl.
The 2015 season was a bit of a downturn for the Spavital offense at A&M, as quarterbacks Kyle Allen and freshman standout Kyler Murray combined for just 22 touchdowns opposed to 20 interceptions.
After the 2015 campaign, Spavital parted ways with A&M, and he took his talents to Cal, which lit up scoreboards with Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb at quarterback. Webb, who is your prototypical pocket passer at 6-foot-6 and 230 pounds, threw for 4,295 yards and 38 touchdowns, numbers that ranked sixth and eighth in the country respectively and were a large reason that Cal averaged 513 yards and 37 points per contest a season ago.
Webb also threw over 600 passes on the year, but Mountaineer fans need not worry about WVU abandoning its running game, as Spavital said that pass-happy number was simply a byproduct of the Golden Bears’ personnel.
“When I got to Cal, there weren’t any tight ends, so I had to use a lot of 10 personnel looks (one running back, no tight end) to move the ball,” said Spavital. “But I think the best offensive minds get the best 11 out there and find a way to move the ball efficiently and that’s what we did.”
And if there is one thing that he’s learned in his four years away from Morgantown, it is how to adapt his offense to the available personnel.
“There’s a lot of living and learning with calling plays but you have to put these kids in the position to go out there and have success,” explained the offensive coordinator. “You can’t ask a kid to go out there and do something that he’s not capable of doing. That was a lot of the growing up that I had to do over the years. The scheme may have been great, but if we didn’t have the right players at those positions, you have to adapt to the personnel you have.”
Spavital now sees a much different roster than WVU had when he was last here in 2012. Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey headlined the most lethal passing attack in West Virginia history that year. But now Holgorsen has implemented more power run game plays into his “air raid” style.
“When I was at Texas A&M, the personnel was kind of where Dana has evolved to with fullback and tight end types,” explained Spavital. “Just from a recruiting stand point, you see a change in the profile of kids. They’re bigger up front, they’re more physical, they’re tougher and the running backs are very impressive.”
The shift in Holgorsen’s philosophy likely means that you won’t see Will Grier throw 600 passes in the 2017 season. In last year’s 10-3 season, WVU threw 409 passes for 3,343 yards while running it 574 times for 2,969 net yards. From what Spavital has seen and heard, he’s downright giddy about the potential of Grier and senior running back Justin Crawford (1,184 yards in ’16).
“I think Crawford is one of the top guys in the country,” said Spavital. “You want to get that guy the ball as many times as you can. When you have a talented kid like Grier and a talented running back, you have to find that happy balance. You have to get a kid like Crawford his touches, but you also be able to showcase Will’s arm. because he can do some things that most other quarterbacks can’t.
“With my time around Will, I think he’s very cerebral; he’s a coach’s kid, so he has a very good understanding of football,” added Spavital, whose wife Mehgan is expecting the couple’s first child this summer. “When you’re in the SEC and you’re using his tape (from his days at Florida) as crossover tape, you can see that he’s athletic enough to extend plays. When he gets out of the pocket, he’s actually a threat to gain some serious yardage. The main thing about him is his poise and I think he’s got a very talented arm. I think it’s going to be fun to see where we can take him.”