Figuring out exactly what is going on at spring drills can be an exercise in frustration. For sure, you can watch the plays and track the results (that is, if you are paying attention, which so few media members actually do). But trying to get an evaluation on who is playing well, or what's working, can be a difficult task, because we often don't know exactly what is being worked on or what the emphasis is on each snap.
Take, for example, just about any defensive practice rep during the first two weeks of West Virginia's spring drills. Coordinator Jeff Casteel noted that he and the rest of his staff weren't calling defensive alignments to try to counter the offense during these sessions. Instead, they were simply working on their own assignments, on getting into the correct positions, and carrying out their duties as the play was run. Obviously, the linemen and linebackers were trying to defeat blocks and get in position to make tackles, and the secondary was trying to cover receivers, but it was as much about getting the many youngsters on that side of the ball comfortable with each call and understanding what they need to do in order to be in position to make plays.
Granted, Casteel and company don't want to see 50-yard pass completions on every play, or watch the backs of runners speeding downfield. They want defenders swarming to the ball, and don't want gaping holes in coverage. But in order to do that, they must first 'install' the defense, just as the offense does on the other side of the ball. Each performer has to know what to do on each play call, against a variety of fronts and formations, and in doing so there are going to be times when the defense called is a bad match-up for what the offense is doing.
Another factor, that of limited tackling, also plays a big role in perceptions of success and failure on defense. WVU hasn't conducted any full scale tackle-to-the-ground work yet, even though the Mountaineers have been in full pads twice and have thumped around with good contact on days in 'shells' (helmets and shoulder pads). The first two weeks, cries of "stay up" – meaning no diving for tackles and no tackling to the ground – have been common.
"We try to save the kids. It's a long season," Casteel noted. "We will go live in scrimmages, but they just finished playing in January, and here we are at the end of March right back in it. It's a pretty big drag on the kids, so we try to stay off their legs as best we can. We haven't been tackling live in practices for about eight years."
That doesn't mean WVU never goes live in the spring – it has two scheduled scrimmages where full-on tackling will be in force – but Casteel, along with most coaches, doesn't want to bang players up unnecessarily. He notes that a defender might make a diving tackle in a practice that results in a three-yard gain instead of a bigger run, but the risk of injury on that same play is great, and to what result? With both sides of the ball concentrating on execution at this point, the results of the play are secondary.
Without full-bore tackling, there's obviously a great advantage for the offense. Backs and receivers are taught to keep running, even as defenders work on wrapping up, so as a result there are more "broken tackles" than one might see in a regular game. All of those items can make the offense look much better than it really is, but that's just part of the equation.
On pass plays this spring, WVU is running them all the way to completion, even if a pass rusher breaks through and has an open shot at the quarterback. In past years, such an eventuality resulted in a whistle and a play stoppage, but now the rep is finished out, even though a sack might clearly have been recorded. Obviously, this is good for the offense, as it gets full reps on plays that otherwise would have been aborted, but again, it also can make it look better than it really is. In one recent 11-on-11 session, WVU's defense would have had at least six sacks (or, at least, six very open shots at the quarterback) but the defensive lineman pulled up and stopped to allow the play to run to completion.
The advantage isn't all on the offensive side, however. The defense might look better if the offense runs a set or a series of plays that it needs to see and line up against. For example, at some point this spring, the offense will line up in the I-formation, or in a two back, one tight end set, in order to give the defense work against looks that it will see throughout the year. That won't be the forte of the Dana Holgorsen offense, of course, and it's likely that the defense will hold the upper hand in these situations.
With all that in mind, let's return to our original play. What really happened there? Did Hargrett break a 'tackle' that likely would have been executed in a full-scale scrimmage? Did the offensive set take advantage of a defensive front or call that was clearly not optimal? Or was the play well-executed – one that might have resulted in a big gain no mater what the situation?
Certainly, some judgments can be made during the spring. Players are being evaluated on an individual basis, and the way they fit and combine to form the basic building blocks of the offense and defense are under the microscope. It's been easy to see the philosophy behind the passing game – and certainly, WVU has made progress in implementing the new system. However, making definitive calls based on the results of each play – even those in the scrimmages – can often lead to unreliable conclusions.