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Deep thoughts

The first thing Dana Holgorsen said to the media Saturday, a short while after an 88-play scrimmage before a crowd of (uh) 8,118, was “Glad that’s over with.” (So that answers that, no?)

It wasn’t artistic. There were missed field goals, turnovers and 15 fails on 19 third downs and two more misses on three fourth downs. The offense was in the red zone but twice, punching in a 1-yard touchdown run on the third series and missing a field goal a while later.

Wendell Smallwood and Rushel Shell sat out and nine players on the defense’s two-deep didn’t go. So there were odd moments, like reserve Jonathan Haynes slugging a (defensive) teammate after a 7-yard gain on third-and-15 that turned fourth-and-8 from the 12 into fourth-and-23 from the 27 and preceded Josh Lambert’s second missed field goal.

Then at the end of the game, reserve defensive back Mykal Manswell intercepted David Sills, fumbled and recovered the fumble. He got three points for the interception and three points for the fumble recovery, and WVU led 39-10, which is the rough equivalent of running up the score in a spring game. And speaking of rough, that was the second of three straight fourth-quarter possessions that ended in a turnover. The fourth ended with Sean “Hitman” Walters hitting quarterback David Sills (a bright spot with eight carries and 71 yards rushing and no negative running plays) so hard with an open-field tackle that the officials threw a flag, then realized it wasn’t targeting, but was just a brutal hit.

That put the scrimmage to bed.

The true conversation was about things that didn’t happen and we didn’t see (Exception: Khairi Sharif, who was pleasantly indiscernible with the first-team for most of the day and who Tony Gibson said will be on special teams and has earned an August chance in nickel and dime packages). A lot of players didn’t play. William Crest has a new and undetermined role, and K.J. Dillon might return punts and/or kickoffs, but neither got much actual action in the scrimmage. Cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Tyrek Cole and receivers Gary Jennings and Ka’Raun White are on their way in the offseason, and the hour glass was turned upside down after the game as WVU awaits their arrivals.

And WVU’s passing game was … it wasn’t great, but that public display was not an accurate representation of what happened and how WVU felt for 14 preceding practices.

There were four occasions Saturday when Skyler Howard stayed in the pocket and threw a pass that covered at least 20 yards in the air. He was 1 for 4, and that’s absolutely going to be a key for the 2015 season.

Opponents know WVU has Shell and Smallwood, and they combined for more than 1,600 yards and nine touchdowns last season. WVU will seek balance, but opponents will do what they can to stop the run, because WVU has those two backs and because WVU doesn’t have Kevin White and Mario Alford.

This is football. It’s give and take and it goes both ways, and this is why it was so important for the Mountaineers to find and develop outside receivers. Someone, or some combination of receivers, has to stretch the field, has to keep a safety or both deep, has to raise the roof of the defense to create gaps and angles and opportunities at and beyond the second level.

WVU’s defense as very basic Saturday and there was deep help more often than not, hence four attempts when Howard was taking three times as many shots in most practices. And in those practices, WVU was oftentimes successful, though in those practices, Gibson was frequently challenging defensive backs by repping one-on-one and single-high coverage, no matter who was healthy and available.

As they put it, the Mountaineers were more productive on deep passes in the spring, the product of two variables. The defense was more aggressive and at times at fault this spring, but Howard was the quarterback from the start and the receivers grew with that experience. Last spring, against a more conservative defense learning the 3-3-5, Howard, Paul Millard and Logan Moore were trying to acquaint themselves and the receivers didn’t blossom.

So in short, the spring game ought not matter too much because the personnel is in place now to take momentum garnered throughout the 15 practices into offseason workouts.

“They were gelling a little bit,” he said. “Shelton’s the one who sticks out to me because he runs as well as Mario does. I think he can stretch the field on anybody because he runs so well, and he did it to us throughout the spring. He had good days and bad days, but I still feel like we’re pretty experienced in the secondary and he made plays on us.”

Howard was 9-for-22 for 121 yards, but his deep throws were not erratic. He said he trusts Shorts and Gibson enough to let the ball go, and he believes the ball is going to go where he aims. That wasn’t an issue Saturday.

The 48-yard pass play on Howard’s second drive in charge of the first-team offense set up the day’s only touchdown, that being a 1-yard run by Marcellus. Howard later tried for a covered Gibson deep along the left sideline and a covered Jordan Thompson down the middle and then had Gibson drop a touchdown pass, something occurring far too frequently for anyone’s comfort.

Coaches and teammates, though, came away convinced it is going to work in the fall.

“This spring, besides what Kevin and Mario gave us, was one of the toughest things I’ve seen,” safety K.J. Dillon said. “Our corners had so much trouble guarding Shelton Gibson. He’s got straight-line speed. He says, ‘OK, I’m going to burn you.’ He’s not going to even put a route on you. He’ll just burn you. If you’ve got that, let it loose. And I like what I see from Skyler Howard and the deep balls he throws.”