Spring Experiments Lead To Fall Changes For West Virginia’s Offense
With seven starters returning from last season, you wouldn’t expect many changes this year for the Mountaineer offense.
And in terms of personnel, it will still be mainly the same players who were part of a unit that averaged 34.5 points per game in 2017. Will Grier will again be WVU’s quarterback. David Sills, Gary Jennings and Marcus Simms are back at receiver, and Yodny Cajuste, Colton McKivitz, Josh Sills and Matt Jones in the offensive line.
But the Mountaineers are experimenting with offensive changes this spring that will likely be obvious when the 2018 season starts next fall.
No matter how successful, almost every college program tweaks its schemes in the offseason. And “tweak” is probably the best way to describe West Virginia’s offensive changes. After all with Grier and friends again leading an offense that averaged 352.1 passing yards a game when its quarterback was healthy, wholesale changes are not necessary. But WVU’s running attack, which averaged ust 150.3 yards a game last season, needs to improve and the Mountaineers would like a little less of the feast-or-famine approach the entire unit displayed at times.
While West Virginia’s coaches won’t reveal the exact details behind their experiments this spring – that will up to Tennessee to figure out in its Sept. 1 opener – much of it is centered around the tight end position.
Since Don Nehlen retired as West Virginia head coach at the end of the 2000 season, tight ends have basically been extra offensive linemen in the Mountaineer offensive attack. They have been utilized infrequently in the passing game. No WVU tight end has caught more than nine passes since Tyler Urban hauled in 20 in 2011, and that’s the high water mark for tight ends since 1999, when future NFL first-rounder Anthony Becht latched on to 35. In last six years, West Virginia tight ends have averaged barely three receptions a season. And in the last two years, WVU’s top tight end, Trevon Wesco, has managed just one catch each season.
We’re all still guessing on how tight ends will be utilized in the Mountaineers’ newly tweaked offense, but the plan appears to be for the tight ends to be more of a factor in the passing game.
“We’re getting more of these tight end bodies. It’s fun to mess around with this stuff,” explained West Virginia’s second-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. “I think we’re right on track with where we want to be.
“I think you can do a lot more when you have that tight end element,” added Spavital. “I started doing a lot of that when I was at Texas A&M (2013-15). I didn’t have very many tight ends at Cal (2016), and last year, we really had one true tight end body. You weren’t going to put Elijah (Wellman, then senior fullback) in those attach tight end situations being 245-250 pounds. Now, we are getting these tight end bodies that are 270 pounds and can move. You can get real multiple with it. You can still have a run threat, but also have a dimension where they can stretch the field and get out on pass concepts. I always have been a big fan of tight ends. I think the way we have recruited and where we are at now, we are going to have five 6-foot-4 tight end bodies going into fall camp. I think that’s exactly where we want to be.”
Wesco returns for his senior season, and while the 6-foot-4, 270-pounder from Musselman (W.Va.) High School has been primarily a blocker in the past, WVU’s coach’s say he has the athletic skill to be more of a factor catching passes in the future. Jovanni Haskins has to make the transition the other way. The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder from Bergenfield, N.J., who came to WVU as a transfer after a one-year stop at Miami, is regarded as an excellent athlete who is still adapting to the physical side of the position. Walk-ons Matt Bezjak and Jesse Beal are also getting opportunities at tight end this spring, and they’ll be joined this summer by incoming freshmen T.J. Banks (6-5, 240 lbs.) and Mike O’Laughlin (6-5, 230 lbs.).
Many of WVU’s offensive changes have centered around different uses for these tight ends. While not every spring experiment makes it into the fall playbook, Spavital likes what he’s seen so far.
“We’ve had a lot discussions,” said Spavital of the offensive changes. “It’s been going on since January. I do like where we’re at. You never say never, but I think a lot of this stuff is going to stick into the season next year.”
West Virginia’s offensive changes will not only take into account the evolving personnel on the Mountaineer roster but also target some of the areas WVU wants to exploit when facing its 2018 opponents. The nine Big 12 foes won’t change much, as each league school is returning its new head coaches. But West Virginia’s three non-conference opponents – Tennessee (Sept. 1 in Charlotte), Youngstown State (Sept. 8 in Morgantown) and North Carolina State (Sept. 15 in Raleigh) – each will be new to the Mountaineer schedule.
“A lot of the installation you do, you look at your schedule and say we’re going to use this against these certain teams,” noted Spavital. “It may not look very good against our defense, but it will be good against other teams who have a different philosophy on the defensive side.”
As for the spring as a whole, West Virginia’s offensive coordinator has been fairly pleased.
“We’re getting there,” he stated. “The thing about spring is that it goes back to the basics, fundamentals and techniques. But it’s also a time to do some experimentation with certain packages.
“Once you get to the spring game, it’s all generic,” added Spavital of the upcoming Gold-Blue Game slated for April 7. “You only call about three plays. But until then, we’ll have some fun and look at some things.”