Let’s have a word about select players who are new to the program or new to playing time.
It’s a momentous season for a marquee program in south Florida.
Good luck finding a team that endured what West Virginia endured last season. That’s the bad news. The good news? It just has to change in 2015. (If you’d like to know more about the topic, let me point you here.)
WVU has an impact newcomer on the offensive line, and the Mountaineers have more answers than questions up front.
(P.S. I’m off for the next eight days. Odd timing, but I haven’t been contracted. Parts 6-13 are done and ready.)
We’ve been talking about Wendell Smallwood and his Charles Sims role for 20 months now, going all the way back to the final game of the 2013 season when I just had to ask, “Hey, Dana. Is Wendell basically Sims?”
It seems now’s the time for Smallwood, because the offense could very well revolve around him like it did Sims two seasons ago, and that was the scenario many observers crafted and explored at the Big 12’s media days earlier this week. He’s a modular part of a modular offense. Versatility is his calling card. “I never used the word until I got to college, but yeah, I used to love catching the ball, running the ball, lining up in the slot and doing a lot of things,’’ Smallwood said. “Once I got to school, Dana just made me do more of them. He’s kind of made it all up for me.’’
But stop right there for a second: Smallwood was in Dallas. A year earlier, he was behind bars.
Did Smallwood do anything wrong? Well, yes, by merely discussing witness tampering with a man accused of murder. That alone left a black mark on his reputation, even if it was just talk. But it also taught him a lesson.
“I think mentally it humbled me. I learned from it, I know that,’’ Smallwood said. “I’ve got to watch who I hang around with, watch my friends, just stay around good people, around players. Just not wander off. It made me a better man.’’
There was a point, Smallwood said, when things were so bad and he seemed so backed into a corner that it didn’t look like there were many ways out. In the middle of all of this, his teammates were getting ready for camp. Some of the best ones were in Dallas. For however brief a time, the thought crossed his mind that, hey, it’s over for me.
“Yeah, it did,’’ Smallwood said, as he sat about as far away from a jail cell as one could possibly get, in a swank hotel in Dallas as one of just a handful of players selected to represent their schools at media days. “Fortunately, the school gave me another chance and God gave me another chance. I’m just happy to be here.’’
Today we take one step closer to the start of the 2015 season by taking a step back and looking at the quarterback position.
Find me three scarier, more destructive, more avoidable defensive players than the Shawn Oakman, Eric Striker, Karl Joseph trio the Big 12 will flaunt this season. They’re uniquely intimidating.
Oakman is “a Transformer,” according to Striker, a 6-foot-9, 280-pound defensive end who is in your head before he’s in the backfield. Remember when we tried to comprehend Kevin White’s silly pre-WVU box jump?
Oakman did 36 inches while holding 70-pound dumb bells.
He’s a real-life meme.
The wonderfully named Striker is no less arresting, though he goes about his business in a much different style. He’s smaller, but he’s unstoppable coming off the edge. “He’s probably one of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of being able to rush up the field and get around the tackle very fast,” WVU center Tyler Orlosky said.
He compensates for his lack of size and he complements his speed with an utter lack of fear.
Media days feature a lot of player surveys. Best this. Favorite that. Someone asked Eric Striker who is ugliest player in college football.
— Mike Casazza (@mikecasazza) July 22, 2015
Striker is apparently fearless and picked Shawn Oakman…and then told Oakman about his pick.
— Mike Casazza (@mikecasazza) July 22, 2015
"He said, 'No. I'm good-looking.' I said, 'You're everything but good-looking. You've got everything, but that's one thing you're not.' "
— Mike Casazza (@mikecasazza) July 22, 2015
Striker’s still walking and breathing, so I’m not certain I believe that, but then again, that’s Striker.
But if we’re discussing fear, let’s discuss Joseph.
West Virginia’s Tyler Orlosky figures to be in the middle of a lot of action this fall, and for good reason. People inside the Puskar Center say no one’s had a better offseason than him. He’s perhaps the strongest player on the roster. He’s connected with Skyler Howard and he’s settled into a leadership role that might have been harder to embrace when he was younger and around older players.
And he’s good. I mean, touted-by-pundits good. He’s revered-by-peers good. Ask Texas Tech center Jared Kaster
“It’s a lot of pressure to put on someone to make the calls and know the front and signal all that stuff, but he’s just good, man. You can tell from watching him,” Kaster said. “He’s very good technique-wise. You can tell he’s smart, but it’s more about his technique. He’s a really good player with really good hands.”
But centers are funny folk. Their lives are unique. Their roles are critical. Their impact is frequently overlooked and underappreciated. So, sure, they are fans of one another because they know what it’s like to be in that unusual position. Forgive them if they think they’re the most important players on offense. Maybe believe them, too.
There were three quarterbacks at the Big 12’s media days. There were five centers. This, they said, was not a coincidence. It is an offensive league, but those offenses ask and trust the centers to do and be so many things to make those units so prolific. The decision to invite five centers? In a word: Smart.
Hunt, Doyle and Orlosky have made academic All-Big 12 teams. Darlington was his high school valedictorian with a 5.1 grade-point average, a 2060 on the SAT and a 33 on the ACT. He’s now an academic All-American.
“I know how much I do, and I know most of [the Big 12] centers are doing as much as I do,” Hunt said. “You’ve got to make sure everyone is on the same page and that you’ve got the call out for where we’re going, where we’re sliding. You’ve got to be someone who can comprehend the defense, see what’s going on over there and understand what the defense is trying to throw at you. And you’ve got to be calm and collected to communicate all of that, too.”
But you can’t limit their value to just intellect. They’re quite literally indispensable.
“We touch the ball more than anybody on the team,” Kaster said. “Why not have us here? Good grief. The quarterbacks are the pretty boys of the team, but the offense starts with us.”
This is not to say the centers are not aesthetically pleasing, though.
“You need a group of good-looking guys in the room,” Kaster said.
The big question deserves a quality answer. So glad you’re here.
Once upon a time, this was a preseason puzzle that Dana Holgorsen presented as part subterfuge and part skill-sharpening. But when WVU’s coaches sat down to put together a depth chart, the assembly of players Holgorsen handed over to be published in the 2015 media guide, Crest was listed as the backup punt returner. (K.J. Dillon is the starter, because why the heck not?)
Much has changed between that August day and where we are now on the cusp of the next season. The secret back then about Crest is why he’s positioned as something of a secret weapon right now.
Holgorsen said Monday he believes Crest will secure a role similar to what Charles Sims had and what Wendell Smallwood has. Others think Trevone Boykin’s blueprint is one to study, and Holgorsen won’t disagree with that. The consensus, though, is Crest is not the future but the present.
He’s a football player, too good to position on the sideline if he’s not quite good enough to be the starting quarterback. At a time when quarterbacks, who are almost invariably the best athletes on their high school teams, are more and more often among the best athletes on their college teams, you’ll notice other schools experimenting with and ultimately employing something similar.
“That, to me, is where the quarterback position has gone,’’ Holgorsen said. “You’re going to see the same thing at Ohio State. They’ve got three of them. I guarantee you that two of them aren’t going to be sitting on the sidelines.
“If you’re recruiting better athletes who are quarterbacks, I don’t understand what the big deal is about getting them out there to play other positions. An athletic quarterback that’s involved in the run game and the draw game and the perimeter game, that’s no different than a guy that’s lined up in the backfield or the slot.’’
Boykin certainly saw it that way. He doesn’t really know Crest, but he knows Crest’s type because he’s cut from the same cloth.
“You just try to be relevant,’’ Boykin said. “If you’re a college football athlete you get a chance to watch other games and you see all the stuff that goes on around you and you just try to be one of those guys. And you try to do it in the right way.’’
For Boykin, doing it the right way meant not getting into some sort of a funk because he wasn’t playing quarterback. That’s an easy trap into which a quarterback who is used to being a quarterback can often fall.
“It depends on him a lot,’’ Boykin said. “If he really wants to commit to the QB position, he should. But if he’s going to be one of those guys like I was, I was just willing to help the team. That’s all it was about. If that meant playing quarterback then I was going to play quarterback. But if that’s not the best way you can help the team, don’t do it.
“It’s about being a team player. If he’s like me, I just wanted the ball. It didn’t matter how I got it.’’