In the wake of a loss, a certain percentage of any fan base calls immediately for change. Whether it’s playcalling, playing time or the employment of the coaching staff, solutions to problems – some of which are real, some of which are not – flow across the zillions of communications channels available today.
Many of those fixes are unrealistic. Firing coaches left and right yields a program with the stability of Pitt in the early 2010s. An entire offensive or defensive scheme can’t be tossed, and a new one installed, in the four days of practice between games. There are, though, changes that can be implemented – a process that is already in place in some respects from week to week.
WVU head coach Neal Brown described the process of the selecting plays for each week’s game, and then calling them in the heat of the action. It’s a process that begins back in the spring (or as early as each team began practicing in this COVID-19 year).
“[Making changes] to the play piece is not (that tough),” he noted. “You start with a big glossary of plays, and you install them in the spring and fall camp. Then you pick and choose the plays you execute the best and what you see defensively (from your opponent). That really doesn’t change. And then you add some window dressing each week. Your base run schemes, your base pass concepts, your protections remain the same, and that true of NFL college, high school, whatever. You don’t take whole glossary into in each game. If plays aren’t working, or in particular, your quarterback doesn’t like a pass play, or your o-line isn’t good at a run play, you get away from them. You don’t ask them to execute what they can’t do.”
That process may be sound simple, but outside observers don’t have the chance to see all that work or understand what went in to deciding on the playcall sheet for that week. They can only go by what they see on the field, and when the results aren’t there, calls to do something different ramp up exponentially.
Without question, coaches have some play calls that they might make differently in hindsight, and not just based on the result. Brown has admitted that in the past. There were a couple in the Texas Tech game that raised some questions, including using smaller back Alec Sinkfield on a pair of third-down runs. However, West Virginia went into the game with a package of plays that produced chances for consistent gains, and in the majority of instances, it was the physical execution of those calls that hurt, not the calls themselves.
That brings up the second part of making changes – personnel. In the past, Brown has detailed the process of evaluating each player. Game performance, practice performance, everything is graded and used to help determine who should play in that week’s game. Match-ups with the opposition can also play a part in who gets more action that week.
Brown notes that making a call to pull one player and replace him with another is tougher than selecting the plays to be used.
“With the players, a lot depends on [who] is behind them,” he explained. “You try to get the most out of your best players. When players are struggling, you try motivating and different techniques. If you have people who are equal, you play them. If not, you try to ride through some down (spots).”
Players in spotlight positions bear the brunt of this sort of speculation, while others in more anonymous spots escape some of it. For example, redshirt freshman Brandon Yates has won the left tackle position over sophomore Junior Uzebu, but even though WVU’s offensive line is still not consistent, there hasn’t been a great deal of attention on that position. Performance concerns at receiver, quarterback and running back are more visible, and draw more comment.
Brown isn’t averse to making changes, but also notes that giving up on young players too quickly is also a bad move. His dilemma, one that all coaches face, is deciding when to make those calls, especially for those players who show promise, make some plays, but aren’t as consistent as everyone, fans and coaches alike, hope.
* * * * * *
Brown did not see any special play or tactic that stood out in last year’s win at Kansas State, which comes to Milan Puskar Stadium on Halloween for a noon game this Saturday (noon on ESPN2). The 16th-ranked Wildcats are 4-1 overall and 4-0 in the Big 12, yet perhaps flying a bit under the radar to No. 6 Oklahoma State (5-0/4-0), which is undefeated overall.
“Like a lot of games in our league, it came down to fourth quarter,” he said of last year’s game plan and playcalling in WVU’s 24-20 victory of K-State in Manhattan. “We played pretty decent on defense, but I don’t know there was anything we particularly did. They hit a big post play early and hit some drag (passing routes) that had some success against us.”
While Brown also complimented the Wildcat running game, K-State backs averaged just 3.2 yards per carry in the Mountaineers’ 24-20 win in 2019.
This year, Brown sees continuity, defensive consistency and improved quarterback play, as major factors in K-State’s success.
“Coach (Chris) Klieman has the guys playing extremely hard,” said Brown, one second-year coach of another. “The culture there for a long time has been about toughness, defense and special teams. Coach Klieman has been tremendously successful throughout his career. They had a tremendous culture at North Dakota State, and he came in (to Kansas State) and continued it. They don’t give you any easy yards. On special teams they have been dominant throughout the year.”
Brown singled out a few Wildcats who have stood out in his early look at this week’s opponent, noting that Klieman and his staff are good at getting the ball to their best players, including transfer tight end Briley Moore and freshman running back Deuce Vaughn.
* * * * * *
While Brown would like for the building of his program to include only forward steps, that’s not the case.
“We are a better football team than we were a year ago,” stated the coach of his 3-2 club. “Are we where we need to be culturally or where we want to be or where I hoped we’d be in year two? Probably not. We are still a work in progress. We show signs, but sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back.”
* * * * * *
QUOTABLE: “It was a game that we didn’t finish. We got off to a slow start defensively and then got better. “But we didn’t finish it and most games in our league are going to go down to the wire. We’re 1-2 in those games, have to be better.” – Neal Brown on the Texas Tech game