If you buy the 2019 “Thinking Texas Football” prospectus by my pal Paul Wadlington (Scipio Tex) you’ll get a preview of the entire Big 12 that includes some interesting thoughts on West Virginia. Wadlington’s sense is that Dana Holgorsen got out at the right time with his program losing more NFL players than they’d sent to the draft in multiple preceding years combined.
Holgorsen never really fit in with West Virginia’s culture, he’s a man of the city and in particular he’s always loved the city of Houston, whereas West Virginia is a largely rural and blue collar state. Holgorsen’s methods generally involved recruiting athletes from the Baltimore/DC metroplex and Florida, sometimes from Pennsylvania, and then supplementing his offense with P5 transfers that were blue chips that initially chose other schools before looking for a chance elsewhere.
Neal Brown may follow a similar formula but his overall understanding of the culture he’s been dropped into and his appreciation for that culture is higher. He’s from Kentucky after all, which is a pretty similar state.
My Big 12 media day interactions with Brown started off on a topic related to the familiar environment that Brown has found himself in.
Coach, how are things coming along finding players like Zacc Weldon that allowed you to have a smashmouth approach at Troy and how big of a part of the plan is that to introduce that dimension to a spread, sometimes finesse league in the Big 12?
First of all, I’m impressed that you came up with Zacc Weldon. I’m really, really impressed with that. Zacc Weldon was a walk-on for us at Troy, because I’m sure you may be the only one in this room who knows who Zacc Weldon is, and I hope his mom is listening. Zacc Weldon was an S-back, what is a fullback in our system, and he walked on for us and ended up playing 40-plus snaps over the last 3 years. So good research. Kudos to you.
Narrator pause: I have depth charts for much of FBS football and some of FCS football that I update year over year. What’s more, Weldon stood out from reviewing Troy’s film when West Virginia hired Troy. They ran a some two-back run game from the Spread-I, even against teams like LSU, and did so with physicality and confidence you don’t often find from a G5 spread team taking on an SEC powerhouse.
The good thing about that is if you look at who we are as West Virginia University, who we are as a football program, who we are as a state, really at the core we’re hard-working, blue collar people that are prideful and that lends itself to finding guys like that, that are unselfish, they’re giving, and so we’re in the hunt for that position. We’ve got a couple of guys that are competing to do that. I do think it’s important and like I said, being a play caller in this league three years I do understand what we’re getting into. This is a league with a ton of dynamic offensive play callers, quarterbacks, playmakers on the offensive side. You will have to score to win games, but I do think it’s important if you look at the teams that have had the most success it’s been the teams that have been able to run the ball, especially when people know you’re going to run the ball. Those are the teams that have won close games.
Narrator pause: Obviously it’s also valuable to have an “S-back” on the field to draw in linebackers so you can throw play-action over the top but Brown is talking about also being able to protect leads, run the ball in short-yardage, and other topics that have been relevant on this blog when discussing the “Raid bro” vs “bash bro” dynamics.
Later I went up to Brown’s podium in the breakout sessions to pick his brain on how the league has evolved since he was last around. I went pretty strong initially to kick things off…
About eight years ago you helped, uh, drive Brent Venables out of the conference…
(to some chuckling reporters) oh, nah. I didn’t drive him out. Brent’s done a heck of a job, man. It’s one of those things, man. He was a tremendous coach for a long time before he went to Clemson. He did a great job at Oklahoma and we were fortunate enough to beat them one time but they beat us like a drum the year before and nobody talks about that.
Narrator pause: Neal Brown was the OC at Tech for 2010-2012 under Tommy Tuberville, who replaced Mike Leach. Tuberville wisely determined to maintain the Air Raid offense and hired Brown to direct it, which he did effectively. Many of y’all may remember Seth Doege and Eric Ward and Darrin Moore but forget that they actually didn’t play for Leach because it was all so similar.
Tech beat Oklahoma IN NORMAN 41-38 in 2011, which stained the reputation of a defense that was better than many recall and when added to RG3’s triumph in Waco later that season led to Venables being pushed out.
What are some of the tactical changes you’ve seen around the league…
Offensively or defensively?
…as much as you want to talk about I’m interested in.
I think offensively, when I left in ’12…someone out there on the open floor they acted like the offenses weren’t good in 10, 11, 12, best I remember the best offenses in the country were still there. (turning to someone else) Bro what do you think? Do you remember that?
(Chuckling) Yeah, that’s the way I remember it too! Is that in ’10, ’11, ’12 the Big 12 was still the best offensive league. And it still is now. So I think the game evolves, there’s a ton of Air Raid principles. And the Air Raid has kinda grown, I always say this, cause I’ve talked to a couple of NFL people lately cause Kliff is the first NFL guy I guess that’s running the Air Raid now, but’s really more of a coaching tree than it is a system now. It’s kinda like what the West Coast offense was 15-20 years ago, it was more the Bill Walsh coaching tree than it was a system. And I think that’s what the Air Raid has evolved to.
But i think the league…everything is cyclical, and I seem some of the teams in the league going back to more of a run-based approach. Maybe more TE usage than it was the last time I was here. I think the defenses are a lot more creative now. There’s a lot more pressure, there’s more multiple looks, than there was back ’10, ’11, ’12 when I was in the league before. I think the level of coaching in this league, not only the head coaching level but at the assistants and coordinators, especially on the defensive side of the ball, is something to keep an eye on.
Narrator pause: Something happened in that 2010-2014 window to influence things in that direction. I’ll break it down in my upcoming book: “Flyover football: How the Big 12 became the frontier for modern football”
What have you guys made of, just looking at the cut-ups from last year, of the sorta inverted Tampa 2 stuff that Iowa State made popular? I don’t know if there was much of that back in 2011, what do you guys…
Well it goes back to um…it really goes back to Rocky Long. (Chuckling) It goes back…football is cyclical man…
…I laugh because, we won our bowl game…our winning touchdown was a Wing-T play. Heh, we ran a play that’s a really “sally” play, a Wing-T play they’ve been running since the 60’s. That was our winning touchdown play we beat Buffalo with in our bowl game.
And a lot of the stuff that they’re doing at Iowa State, first of all I think it’s really smart. They’ve done a great job, him and his whole staff, of building that program. And they’re unique, you gotta be different in certain spots and they’re different. What they’re doing, um, on defense, is different. A lot of it looks very similar to what Rocky Long was doing, you know? And one of his disciples was in our league before when I was in the Sun Belt, he was working for Todd Berry at ULM. They’ve done a really good job, they’re being creative with how they get their extra hat in the run game.
Is that something that Koenning and the defensive staff are looking at for West Virginia or do you have your own schemes you guys think will…
Ah, well, we’ve…Vic’s evolved, you know, I think that’s one of the things that’s made him successful over a long period of time as a defensive coordinator at his various stops. I think 12+ years as a defensive coordinator at a power 5 level, is that he’s evolved and he’s always changed. We looked a lot different in ’18 than we did in ’16. Results were similar but we looked a lot different. If you ask Vic he was running the inverted Tampa 2 back at Memphis State, if that tells you anything. But, we’ve watched it and no different than…Vic on defense and what our offensive staff does, is you’re constantly looking at people having success and try to steal tidbits from everybody and try to bring them into your system.
It seems a good guess that Brown is well aware of the trends in the league and the back and forth between using a two-back spread run game to throw it deep and new defensive measures to defend the deep field without compromising the run D. I think Brown’s tenure will just be a matter of shaping the roster to execute his vision.
Towards that end, I think he figures the walk-ons from within West Virginia should supply them with plenty of fullbacks to execute the plan. It also seems like he’ll be quicker to build around the hard-nosed kids from the upper south, Appalachia, and Ohio or Pennsylvania than Dana Holgorsen for whom those kids often seemed to be something of an afterthought if still important cog.