By Cam Huffman
There’s a different look and different feel to spring practice this year in Morgantown, and it has nothing to do with the absence of Geno Smith, Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey.
The missing faces — and voices — on the West Virginia University practice field are those of Steve Dunlap, Bill Bedenbaugh, Robert Gillespie, Daron Roberts and Jake Spavital, assistant coaches who are now gone from the program. They’ve been replaced by Tony Gibson, Ron Crook, JaJuan Seider, Brian Mitchell and Lonnie Galloway, who are now blowing the whistles and providing the instructions.
There’s also been some shuffling with the coaches who are still in Morgantown.
Much to the delight of most Mountaineer fans, Joe DeForest is no longer calling the defense. He’s listed as the associate head coach, working a lot with special teams, and the defensive coordinator duties have been handed to Keith Patterson. Shannon Dawson has shifted from wide receivers to running backs, opening up a spot for Galloway to work with the receivers, as he did during Bill Stewart’s tenure at WVU.
Basically, head coach Dana Holgorsen and defensive line coach Erik Slaughter are the only coaches in the same positions they were in last year at this time.
The changes have led to different drills, different techniques and different emotions, but, for the most part, the players seem to be adjusting well.
For fans, the focus is on the defensive side, where WVU finished 108th in the country in total defense and 114th in scoring defense, allowing 38.08 points and 472.46 yards per game.
Patterson, who took over after the regular season was complete and served as the defensive coordinator in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl against Syracuse was given a pass for the performance of the defense in that debacle — WVU gave up 38 points and 511 yards in that 38-14 loss — because there was little time to make major changes.
But the Mountaineer faithful are expecting to see something different when WVU plays its annual Gold-Blue Spring Game on April 20.
Senior cornerback Broderick Jenkins is hoping for much different results from a secondary that allowed 312.54 passing yards per game, and he said he’s already noticed a difference.
“With Coach Patterson, we got to touch on it during the bowl game,” said Jenkins, who finished with 33 tackles and an interception last season. “He gave us an insight of what it is going to be and what we have to look forward to.
“Now that we have seen it, he is just an old-fashioned coach that wants you to run to the ball and give effort and everything else will take care of itself.”
He’s also noticed a difference with his position coach, Brian Mitchell, who came to WVU after serving as the defensive coordinator at East Carolina.
“He’s a good guy and a guy with experience,” said Jenkins. “You can tell from him coaching and being around him these last couple of months that he knows what he is doing. All he wants us to do is just buy in, and I feel like he is going to be able to take us to a good place this year.”
The secondary could also get a boost from Gibson, a former WVU assistant under Rich Rodriguez who left Coach Rod’s staff at Arizona to return to Morgantown.
On the other side of the football, there’s not nearly as much urgency for change. With Smith, Austin and Bailey, WVU had one of the most dynamic offenses in the country last year. The challenge there is to find away to maintain that production with those three headed to the NFL.
It all starts up front, where Crook, a Parkersburg native, has returned to the Mountain State to take control of the offensive line. Senior Pat Eger, who’s experimenting with a move to center after playing tackle last season, said the adjustment to Crook’s style has been an easy one.
“The only thing different is that he brings something different a little big scheme wise, and he coaches a little bit different,” said Eger. “Between him and Bedenbaugh (the former offensive line coach, who left to join the coaching staff at Oklahoma), they both expect as close to perfection as you can get. They both coach being tough players, being hard-headed and nasty players up front. But the only real difference is they bring a little bit different techniques.”
With so many key pieces of the passing game gone — and the quarterback duties still up for grabs — WVU may chose to run the ball behind Crook’s line a little more often next season. The Mountaineers return last year’s leading rusher, Andrew Buie, and Dustin Garrison is expected to be back to 100 percent. He never reached full strength last year after offseason knee surgery.
The new leader there is Seider, a former Mountaineer quarterback who came back from Marshall to replace Gillespie, who left for Tennessee.
“He’s a good guy,” said Garrison of his new coach. “He knows what he is doing, and it is good to have him as a part of the group now. Coming from Marshall, he had a couple good backs, and it is good to have him on board.”
— E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.