Zone-read running scheme gives WVU another offensive option
Three years removed from Geno Smith's 656-yard performance against Baylor in the highest-scoring Big 12 game ever and only a year after Clint Trickett threw for 511 yards at Maryland, Holgorsen has infused zone-read running into his play calling with quarterback Skyler Howard now in charge.
With the Mountaineers (2-0) off this week ahead of a Sept. 26 home matchup with Maryland, Holgorsen is eager to get Howard working more on sticking the football in a running back's gut, then deciding in a split second whether to let go, depending on the defensive alignment.
There have been few complaints so far. West Virginia is 2-0 for the first time since Smith's senior season.
In the past, Holgorsen often went to a quick throw to the outside or a jet sweep toss to a wide receiver in motion to get around defenses that crowded the line of scrimmage.
Due in part to the zone read and the mobility of Howard, the Mountaineers are now running the ball 60 percent of the time, compared to 51 percent last season, 48 percent in 2013 and 46 percent in 2012.
It's been a tricky learning process for Holgorsen, a disciple of the Air Raid offense built by Hal Mumme and later perfected by Mike Leach. Both coached Holgorsen at Iowa Wesleyan.
''There is a scheme aspect of it where I have to continue to do a better job at it, and they (players) have to do a better job at it,'' Holgorsen said. ''It's just a day-to-day aspect of working it, and when they keep it in there and when they pull it out of there. It's been fun for me to learn a lot about it and work it. It's become pretty valuable.''
Using the zone-read run at West Virginia is hardly new. Pat White did it at will from 2005-08. But it wasn't done with less shifty quarterbacks the past several years.
Now it gives the Howard another option. In his fourth career start, he ran for 68 yards last week in a 41-17 win over FCS team Liberty, including a 34-yarder.
''It's just taking what the defense gives us,'' Howard said. ''We studied them all week and they did some stuff up front, they'd twist out of their gaps and we took advantage of that.''
Howard is hardly a slouch throwing the football. He's averaging 311 passing yards per game with five touchdowns and no interceptions.
One player who hasn't benefited yet from keeping the ball on the ground more is Rushel Shell. The team's leading rusher in 2014 with 788 yards has shared the load again with the speedier Wendell Smallwood, who leads the team with 184 yards and an average of 7.1 yard per carry.
Shell was limited to 27 yards on 11 carries against Liberty and has 69 yards for the season.
''I think right now he's trying too hard,'' Holgorsen said. ''He needs the ball more, because the more he gets the ball, the more rhythm he gets and the stronger he gets. He needs to perform a little better. He knows that, and we are going to give him the ball as much as we can.
''He is second guessing himself a little bit, and you can't do that at running back. You have to hit it.''