WVU Football Questions For 2018: Coaches
Question 14 – Coaching Attrition – Time sure flies.
It may be hard to believe, but Dana Holgorsen is entering his eighth year as West Virginia’s head football coach. Only two people have led the Mountaineer grid program for a longer period of time in one consecutive stretch. Pappy Lewis was WVU’s head coach for 10 years (1950-59), and Don Nehlen spent 21 seasons guiding the Mountaineers (1980-2000). Ira Errett Rodgers did serve as West Virginia’s coach for a total of nine years, but he did it in two stints (1925-30 and 1943-45), as during that second stretch, he filled in for Bill Kern during World War II.
While Holgorsen has had a long run as WVU’s head coach, he has seen plenty of turnover in his assistant coaching ranks.
That attrition continued recently when Mountaineer running back coach Tony Dews took a new job, as he’ll be the running back coach with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. But to this point, that’s the only member of West Virginia’s 2017 coaching staff who has departed.
And compared to WVU’s coaching attrition in past years, one loss would be the low mark in the Holgrosen era.
Because of the new NCAA rule allowing FBS coaching staffs to add a 10th assistant, WVU was able to promote Dan Gerberry. Having been West Virginia’s senior offensive analyst last year, Gerberry is familiar with the inner workings of the Mountaineers, and he will now oversee the tight end position.
So with the addition of Gerberry and the deletion of Dews, West Virginia’s staff currently has one opening. If it remains only one, that is as stable has Holgorsen’s staffs have been during his time leading the Mountaineers.
The seven previous offseasons since Holgorsen became West Virginia’s head coach in 2011, WVU has had significant turnover among its assistants. In Dana’s first season, he retained the four defensive coaches from the Bill Stewart staff (Jeff Casteel, Steve Dunlap, Bill Kirewalich and David Lockwood), but brought in five new offensive coaches (Bill Bedenbaugh, Shannon Dawson, Robert Gillespie, Daron Roberts and Jake Spavital). The next year, Casteel, Kirelawich and Lockwood left to join Rich Rodriguez in Arizona and Holgorsen replaced them with Joe DeForest, Keith Patterson and Erik Slaughter. In 2013, there was a change of five assistants, as Bedenbaugh, Gillespie, Spavital, Roberts and Dunlap departed, and Ron Crook, Lonnie Galloway, JaJuan Seider, Tony Gibson and Brian Mitchell were hired. The following season saw just two changes (Patterson and Slaughter left, while Tom Bradley and Damon Cogdell came in), which equals the fewest changes in the first six years. Dawson and Bradley got coordinator positions elsewhere in 2015, and Mark Scott and Bruce Tall replaced them. After the 2015 season, four assistants left (Galloway, Cogdell, DeForest and Mitchell) and they were replaced by Joe Wickline, Blue Adams, Matt Caponi and Tyron Carrier. Then following the 2016 season, Adams, Crook and Seider left, opening up spots for Spavital’s return, as well as the hiring of Doug Belk and Dews.
So, with a turnover average of 3.2 assistants per year, Holgorsen is used to looking through resumes for new employees.
But this year has been different so far. Dews has left, and Belk was interviewed for an opening at Alabama, but he remains at WVU. And all the others seemingly will return as well.
Such continuity is not only unusual at West Virginia, but also vitally important. After three different defensive coordinators in the first three years of the Holgorsen era, Gibson is preparing for his fifth season as WVU D.C. Keeping the same coordinator and same scheme has helped that unit make great progress in comparison to the horrific Mountaineer defenses of 2012 and ’13.
Now not only does Gibbie return with his 3-3-5 odd stack, but this will be his first season when he has had all his defensive assistants returning as well, each teaching the same techniques. After going through five cornerback coaches in the past seven years, now the returning CBs like Hakeem Bailey and Fontez Davis can refine the same skills taught by Belk for a second straight seasons. This will be the fourth season WVU’s d-linemen have been taught by Tall, the third the safeties will be under the tutelage of Caponi, and the fourth Gibbie has worked hands on with the linebackers, where he also gets additional coaching help again from Scott.
On offense, it’s similar, as Spavital gets to coach Will Grier for a second straight season. And Wickline and Carrier will be with West Virginia for their third seasons. Gerberry and Dews’ eventual replacement will be the only newcomers to the offensive side.
That relative continuity has got to help all involved, though there obviously is still plenty of improvement needed by every area.
As good as Will Grier was in 2017, Spavital believes he can get that much better next season. Carrier’s top receivers have been outstanding, but he badly needs to develop depth. Consistency from Wickline’s offensive line is a necessary step for that group if WVU wants to live up to the hype that is going to surround it in 2018.
On defense, Tall’s line returns all its key cogs and now it will have to play like the veteran unit it will be. Gibson’s linebacking corps and Caponi’s safeties don’t lose much in terms of numbers, but finding the production to replace seniors Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White is going to be huge.
And the toughest coaching task for any this year certainly is the one in front of Belk, who lost two senior starters in Elijah Battle and Mike Daniels from a unit that frankly struggled at times. Now Belk is responsible for reconstructing the cornerback position, and in doing so, making it even better than it was last year. Admittedly that’s a tough chore when Belk will be working with just one corner (Bailey) who has ever seen significant major college defensive action.
So, while coaching continuity is likely a huge plus for the Mountaineers, each of these assistants faces vital tasks as West Virginia looks for improvement in 2018.