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Is 2016 Make Or Break For Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia?

With expectations high in Morgantown, coach Dana Holgorsen needs to prove that he can win at West Virginia.

Getty Images - Mike Ehrmann

West Virginians are a pragmatic, if not downright pessimistic people. They tend to expect the worst and if something good should happen they just live with it. It is that fatalistic attitude that made the 2007 loss to Pitt, a game where the second ranked Mountaineers were four touchdown favorites and the loss kept them out of the National Championship, almost bearable. They almost expect the worst to happen.

It is not that they have low expectations for the program. West Virginians know better than to expect the Mountaineers to win every game. What they do expect, is for Mountaineers to play hard, win the games they should, and steal a game or two every so often.

Their expectations were realized more often than not under Don Nehlen, Rich Rodriguez and even Bill Stewart. Under Nehlen, Rodriguez and Stewart the Mountaineers had two undefeated seasons, won three BCS bowls, played for two national championships and just missed playing for a third.

Yet, WVU’s last glory season was 2011. A season that began with Dana Holgorsen taking over as head coach and ended with the Mountaineers crushing Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl. Holgorsen was off to a fast start and expectations were high. Unfortunately the past few seasons the program, while showing flashes, has been mediocre at best. And despite Mountaineer Nation’s collective pessimism, mediocrity is just not acceptable.

It should not be a secret that Holgorsen is on the hot seat, and this could be a make or break season for the coach. Many close to the Mountaineer program believe that WVU was far better than the 8-5 record it had last year. Sources close to the program, that wish to remain anonymous because they aren’t authorized to speak on the matter, say that they believe athletic director Shane Lyons was close to firing Holgorsen after the losses to TCU and Kansas State last season, and had WVU not outlasted Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl, Holgorsen would have been terminated.

Not everyone close to the program has lost faith in Holgorsen, though. They point out that last year, Holgorsen was simply doing too much. He was overextended as head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. They believe that Holgorsen is the best offensive mind in college football and simply needs to grow into the job.

If that’s true, then Holgorsen needs a growth spurt, because his time is running out.

Hopefully, 2016 is the year Holgorsen grows into the job. Offensive coordinator Joe Wickline was brought in to be Holgorsen’s ‘chief of staff’ to handle the mundane administrative duties in order to free Holgorsen up to do what he does best. I’m told that Doc Holliday served in the same role for Rich Rodriguez for many years to great effect. Wickline is also expected to be Holgorsen’s voice of dispassionate reason from the coaches box above, much as Calvin Magee was to Rodriguez.

So, what does Holgorsen have to do to keep his job? It’s simple, WVU has to play up to its potential. Which, for what I am told are expectations within the program, is winning 9 games.

The Mountaineers have been described as sneaky good, but that’s not entirely accurate. There’s nothing sneaky about the talent on this team.

The Mountaineer offensive line could be one of the nation’s best. Holgorsen’s offense has depth and experience at nearly every position, especially receiver and running back. And newcomers Justin Crawford and Kennedy McKoy give WVU the home run threat they’ve lacked since Noel Devine.

The only question for WVU’s offense is at quarterback, which the inability to recruit and develop quarterbacks has been a consistent issue for coach Holgorsen.

In Holgorsen’s five years as head coach, only two quarterbacks signed out of high school, Paul Millard and Ford Childress, have taken snaps as starting QB. Both Clint Trickett and Skyler Howard transferred into the program. The lack of QB depth and the inability to get quality snaps from backups has hurt the Mountaineers in Big 12 play.

Howard was also inconsistent last season struggling with the short and intermediate throws required to make Holgorsen’s offense hum. Howard’s throwing problems appear to be when under pressure. Film shows that he often threw off the wrong foot as he danced within a collapsing pocket. Hopefully, Howard won’t need his dancing shoes this season.

Joe Wickline and Ron Crook have focused on pass protection and enlarging the pocket. If WVU’s massive and talented offensive line has learned to pass protect like they run block, then Howard could have a Heisman worthy year. Many believe he has that potential, despite his previous struggles.

Defensively, the Mountaineers shouldn’t worry. Tony Gibson is considered by many to be one of the best defensive coordinators in the Big 12, and has a knack for getting the most out of his players.

Despite losing Dravon Askew-Henry and Brendan Ferns to season ending injuries, the Mountaineers have a talented, if inexperienced, defense that should improve as the season progresses and the newcomers learn to play as a team.

With a favorable home schedule and an offense loaded with talent, experience and speed should overcome the challenge of a defense that will be vastly better than the unit that embarrassed WVU in 2012, but slightly less effective than last year’s squad.

West Virginia has the talent on both sides of the ball to win in the Big 12, and 9 wins is realistically within reach. Now, they just need to prove it to the rest of the conference. If at the very least, for coach Holgorsen’s sake.


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