MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—Two tables full of West Virginia coaches made the 100-yard walk across the street to the Varsity Club on a balmy April night to toast Joe DeForest. The occasion: the Mountaineers’ new co-defensive coordinator had turned 47. At the head of the table, DeForest, only a few months removed from coming over from Oklahoma State, was busy trading barbs with Shannon Dawson, the team’s offensive coordinator. Both assistants have small-college Louisiana and Texas roots, much like almost every other Mountaineers assistant in the place on this night. Even Dawson’s parents, just in from Louisiana for the WVU spring game, heaved some zingers their son’s way.
A few hours later, most of the tavern has cleared out. These tables, which had been covered with platters wilting under overstuffed meatball subs, are now littered with salt and pepper-shakers. The condiments have become de facto Xs and Os. The Mountaineers’ other new co-defensive coordinator, Keith Patterson, another guy with small-school Texas roots before devising formidable defenses at Tulsa and Pitt, is “diagramming” his theories on ways to attack a spread offense to his boss Dana Holgorsen and Jake Spavital, the QBs coach.
Holgorsen seems more impressed than amused. Maybe Patterson doesn’t have the magic bullet. Maybe he does. Holgorsen isn’t conceding anything other than he’s thrilled Patterson is on his side. Last year, Patterson’s Pitt defense gave the Mountaineers fits, holding WVU to its lowest offensive output of the season. The grin on Holgorsen’s face as he listens to his new assistant is because conversations like this can trigger the next wrinkle of the Mountaineer attack, the second-year head coach later explains. Better still, it’s just this kind of back-and-forth itself that shows just how much further his program may go.
The 40-year-old head coach has reasons to beam. He is coming off a chaotic debut season at WVU where he led the Mountaineers to 10 wins, capped off by a BCS bowl victory. It was a season spurred by an eye-popping jump from No. 78 in scoring in 2010 to No. 13. Most of the key players from the 2011 squad return, including star QB Geno Smith, a Heisman contender. WVU also no longer has to worry about its conference home after bolting the beleaguered Big East for the suddenly robust Big 12. In addition, this offseason not only afforded a savvy Mountaineers offense more time to hone its timing with added reps in Holgorsen’s system, but a chance to overhaul the defensive staff and pump up team chemistry.
The staff shakeup was prompted when longtime West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and two other WVU defensive assistants, D-line coach Bill Kirelawich and cornerbacks coach David Lockwood, all holdovers from the Bill Stewart regime Holgorsen inherited, opted to rejoin Rich Rodriguez at Arizona. Holgorsen is quick to say those were three good coaches, but the arrival of DeForest, whom he worked with at Oklahoma State, along with Patterson and new defensive line coach Erik Slaughter, who coached with Dawson at Stephen F. Austin, seem to be ideal fits as the program moves into the Big 12. Others around the program are more blunt. They say the change is something that not only will help in recruiting but also boost morale and the energy around the facility, something that was sorely needed.
“I really never saw those guys besides Lock [Lockwood] outside of the office ever,” said one of the WVU offensive assistants of the deflated vibe around the football facility last year. The staffer added that it was also vital that Holgorsen spruced up a complex that had gotten stale because the players “came into the building pissed off.”
Staff chemistry, like team chemistry, can be a delicate thing. Young assistants can clash with older guys not open to new approaches. Vets can lose patience with upstarts. Egos get bruised. Players sense it. One former Florida State staffer pointed to bad staff chemistry as a major factor in the decline toward the end of Bobby Bowden’s run in Tallahassee, where several older assistants got too set in their ways and didn’t mesh well with others. Things may not have been that fragile last season in Morgantown, but after a tumultuous transition from Stewart to Holgorsen, it was an issue.
“You notice a huge difference [from Year 1 to Year 2 of the Holgorsen era],” Smith said. “The biggest change is that everyone’s getting along with each other.”
That means coaches with coaches, players with coaches, players with players.
“The coaches we had last year never said anything about it, but you can definitely see these guys are more on the same page,” Smith said. “Me and Coach ‘Defo’ watched film together. We talk about what he sees and what I see. That’s something I’d never done before but it helps. I know I can trust him and he knows he can trust me.”
Earlier in his career at WVU, Smith says players might miss a workout or a class, but how it was handled varied. “Some guys would get away with it, and some wouldn’t. Everyone knows what that would ultimately lead to: Guys felt like they were bigger than team. We kinda had a rift between the offense and defense, but as coach Holgorsen implemented his personality on the team, everyone’s getting along better. We have good competition but we know we’re all part of the same team.”