EDITOR’S NOTE: In the two weeks leading up to the 2017 college football season, Franchise columnist and co-host John E. Hoover previews the Big 12 Conference. Today: West Virginia.
Dana Holgorsen, that wild haired, energy drink swigging, mad genius of a football coach, is loosening his grip on the West Virginia offense.
Jake Spavital takes over play-calling for the Mountaineers in 2017, and Holgorsen, believe it or not, is completely comfortable with it.
“I trained him for four years,” Holgorsen said. “He was my personal GA for four years and trained him how to do things. He went out on his own and did a lot of really good things.”
Now starting his 10th year as a major college assistant, the former Tulsa Union All-State quarterback has indeed compiled quite the resume.
- He got his start in 2008 as a graduate assistant at Tulsa working under offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, and TU ranked first nationally in total offense and second in scoring.
- In 2009, he worked at Houston under Holgorsen. The Cougars led the nation in scoring, passing and total offense.
- He followed Holgorsen to Oklahoma State in 2010, and the Cowboys were second nationally in scoring and passing and third in total offense.
- In 2011-12, Spavital got his first full-time gig working as Holgorsen’s quarterbacks coach at WVU. His pupil: First-round draft pick Geno Smith, who finished with more than 11,000 career passing yards.
- Spavital spent 2013-15 at Texas A&M, where he coached Johnny Manziel to a Heisman Trophy. His final two years in College Station, Spavital was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator, setting A&M and SEC records for total yards and passing yards.
- As offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Cal last year, Spavital’s unit ranked fourth nationally in passing yards and QB Davis Webb was one of college football’s most prolific passers.
Yeah, Spavital is ready to call Holgorsen’s plays.
“He knows how I think. I know how he thinks,” Holgorsen said. “So I’ve got 100 percent complete confidence in him being able to do this.”
The timing is right, too, because Holgorsen’s plays are now being executed by a probable future NFL quarterback.
Will Grier, the mercurial transfer from Florida, was named national high school player of the year by Parade Magazine, the Maxwell Football Club and recruiting guru Tom Lemming. But that was 2014 in Davidson, North Carolina.
Grier’s more recent achievements include a 6-0 start as a Gators redshirt freshman, a positive test for performance enhancing drugs, a year-long NCAA suspension, and a contentious transfer out of Florida that reportedly included some meddling from his high school coach and father, Chad Grier.
However things ended in Gainesville, Grier is eager for a fresh start in Morgantown. Holgorsen calls him “one of the most high-character guys I’ve ever been around. He’s all business. … He’s everything you want in a starting quarterback.
“It was critical that we got him when we got him. We had Skyler (Howard) coming back for another year, but our quarterback depth was not good. So getting him was awful big. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that he’s a really good player. He’s got that starting quarterback trait. He’s a coach’s kid. He’s a winner. He’s always up at the office. He doesn’t have a whole lot of extracurricular activities other than his wife and little girl. He’s about to graduate. So he’s on track with that as well. He’s kind of got things together right now.
“Got the locker room ready to roll. He gets them out there and watches film with them and throws a lot of stuff with them. He controls the huddle. He does everything right.”
Grier’s impact on the offense will be big early. WVU has just 11 starters returning of last year’s 10-3 squad (seven on offense). One of those seven is running back Justin Crawford, the Big 12’s leading returning rusher from 2016. Crawford rushed for 1,184 yards and averaged 7.3 yards per carry last season.
Grier’s arm strength and accuracy and Spavital’s play-calling intuition, Crawford said, will help a lot this season.
“Teams won’t be able to stack the box on us anymore,” Crawford said. “They’re gonna have to play the pass.”
WVU brings back three players with starting experience on the offensive line (Kyle Bosch, Yodny Kajuste and Colton McKivitz), two at receiver (Jovon Durante, Ka’Raun White) and one at fullback (Elijah Wellman). White was second on the team last year with 48 catches and third with 583 yards and five touchdowns while Durante (35-331-2) was fourth.
On defense, only four starters are back from one of the Big 12’s top units: safeties Kyzir White and Dravon Askew-Henry and linebackers Al-Rasheed Benton and David Long.
Holgorsen has built his reputation at WVU with transfers. Kyzir White and Crawford were junior college transfers. In addition to Grier, Holgorsen’s four-year transfers this season include quarterback Jack Allison and tight end Jovani Haskins from Miami and wide receiver T.J. Simmons from Alabama.
Holgorsen said living off transfers became a strategy after WVU’s second year in the Big 12.
“Recruited a lot of high school kids, got our depth better, but we went 4-8 (in 2013), so we needed some more top-end talent,” he said. “So, started doing a lot of transfers, and they’ve worked out. It’s just kind of what our niche has been.”
More than half of this year’s recruiting class, Holgorsen said, were transfers.
“I used to get nervous on Signing Day when we missed out on a couple of high school kids,” Holgorsen said. “Now I don’t really — it doesn’t bother me. Not that I don’t care, it just doesn’t bother me because we can find guys later on.”
And speaking of WVU’s brief history in the Big 12, Holgorsen made a curious comment at Big 12 Media Days.
“This is going into our sixth year,” he said. “Really, for the first time, feel like we’re a true member.”
Asked to elaborate, Holgorsen said everyone at WVU has become more comfortable with the notion of playing opponents from halfway across the country.
“There’s no surprises anymore,” Holgorsen said. “We know how to travel. Our fan base knows what to expect. Our players walk into the building, and they look at — I’ve got pictures of nine different stadiums on our wall; they used to sit there and study them and now they don’t even really look at them because they understand what the opponent is, they understand what the facilities are.
“There’s … the monetary aspect of it as well. We’re finally a full-fledged member. That makes a big difference when you get that check. There was a lot of time when we weren’t getting that (full league) revenue check, obviously. It just feels like we belong.
“I think Shane Lyons is doing a great job as our athletic director, and we’ve got things headed in the right direction. I just feel like there’s a lot of momentum right now.”
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page. Visit his personal page at johnehoover.com.
- 2017 WEST VIRGINIA SCHEDULE
- Sept. 3: Virginia Tech *
- Sept. 9: East Carolina
- Sept. 16: Delaware State
- Sept. 23: at Kansas
- Oct. 7: at TCU
- Oct. 14: Texas Tech
- Oct. 21: at Baylor
- Oct. 28: Oklahoma State
- Nov. 4: Iowa State
- Nov. 11: at Kansas State
- Nov. 18: Texas
- Nov. 25: at Oklahoma
* at Landover, Maryland