Dana Holgorsen, Adapting to Quarterbacks, and Why 2018 Could Be His Best Offense

by Ian Wharton

West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen is entering his eighth year with the Mountaineers and expectations have been set high after his explosive offense regained traction in 2017. 

Holgorsen’s overall record since the school joined the Big 12 has been middling, but he has been constantly tinkering with his offense to the point where it has fundamentally changed twice. His ability to adapt to quarterbacks and integrate staff experiences has been a defining trait.

Starting Out at West Virginia
His first offensive iteration with quarterback Geno Smith at the helm was well-covered upon his arrival to West Virginia. Essentially, Holgorsen’s early version of the Air Raid featured more multi-back sets and power runs than Mike Leach’s. The traditional four-wide alignment with quick dropbacks was changed to favor more backfield movement pre-snap.

Related: Contextualizing Where Every FBS Head Coach Stands Going Into 2018

There were multiple reasons for Holgorsen to favor this in 2011 and 2012. The first relates to personnel, as the Mountaineers had receivers Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey as dynamic space players. This included jet sweep action to Austin as he ran his way to a ridiculous 8.9 yards per carry average on 72 touches. 

The receiving duo were deep threats due to their speed, but Smith’s physical and mental skill set played better for a quick-release offense. Holgorsen’s goal has always been to make defenders think harder than his offensive players and react to releases off the line. Still, one reason the Smith-led offense struggled in 2012 against stronger competition was his inability to adjust when defenses hedged against short-drop, underneath throws. He was an accurate downfield thrower but wasn’t comfortable with the nuances that make a downfield attack effective. 

Post-Smith, there was a drastic change as the quarterback position became less stable. 2013 through 2016 saw a massive drop in quarterback competence, forcing Holgorsen to go back into Hal Mumme’s traditional 21 personnel packages, rather than relying on spread formations. The offensive play-calling went from 54 percent passing in 2012 with Smith, to 52 percent in 2013, all the way to 42 percent passing split in 2016.

The functionality of the offense from the Clint Trickett-era in 2013 and 2014 even varied in those two years, as Kevin White emerged as a bonafide star at receiver. The transition period of 2013 was a difficult one that relied on running back Charles Simm’s inside running, and a neutered passing game that had quarterbacks unable to handle the freedom and responsibility within the Air Raid. Eventually, Holgorsen tightened up his scheme and relied more on tunnel screens to augment the run game, rather than his preferred vertical outlets. 

Holgorsen's Offense in 2014 and Beyond
The 2014 offense was heavily reliant on motion in the backfield with defenses focusing on White’s alignment. Trickett’s completion percentage skyrocketed to 67.1 percent that year as he drew legitimate NFL interest before retiring due to concussions.

The clip above highlights how Holgorsen would use motion to draw a reaction from the defense. If the linebacker followed the back, the tight end would have had a few easy yards before the next-level defender arrives. If he stayed home, Trickett would have had the numbers advantage and targeted the back. The offense only created 18 passing touchdowns, though, so there were limitations to the conservative approach.

Once again after a quarterback change in 2015, Holgorsen’s Air Raid evolved. Skyler Howard was a power-read option quarterback with a legitimate deep ball, but little else in terms of accuracy. There was more play-action power incorporated than ever before, with deep shots to Shelton Gibson to keep defenses from smothering the underneath action that has always stayed in the playbook.

That 2015-16 offense was really when Holgorsen embraced the smashmouth spread, which you likely utilized if you played NCAA Football before the video game series died off. The smashmouth spread takes advantage of powerful linemen, a fullback, and as much speed outside as possible. But even as they went 10-3 with this strategy, Holgorsen knew that throwing the ball on 42 percent of all of their snaps maximized their efficiency and effectiveness as his more varied concepts were not viable with Howard.

Related: Baker to Kyler: A Look at How Lincoln Riley Could Tweak the Sooners Offense

West Virginia's 2017 Offense with Jake Spavital
2017 brought a return to roots for Holgorsen, though it wasn’t just as simple as plugging in transfer quarterback Will Grier and dusting off his 2011-12 playbook. Holgorsen hired offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, finalizing a sixth-degree relationship between many of the great Air Raid minds in the country. Stay with me while I connect all of the dots.

Holgorsen and Spavital worked together on Kevin Sumlin’s staff in Houston in 2009, and again on Mike Gundy’s staff at Oklahoma State in 2010. Holgorsen then became head coach at West Virginia, and Spavital followed as a quarterbacks coach for one-year. He then went back under Sumlin at Texas A&M for three seasons while Johnny Manziel was on campus. Spavital then left to go under Sonny Dykes’ Cal team in 2016, which produced Jared Goff.

Dykes, author of the zany Bear Raid version of the offense, previously worked with both Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, and employed Tony Franklin, who was also on Mumme’s Kentucky staff. And of course, Holgorsen’s early coaching career was spent on Leach’s Texas Tech team.

There are many different subtleties within each of these coaches’ versions of the spread and Air Raid philosophy. Holgorsen’s experience working with each of these individuals allowed him to adjust yearly and that accumulated into a breakout offensive season in 2017 with Grier as his signal-caller and Spavital as his offensive coordinator.

Spavital’s immediate impact was more traditional four-wide sets and zone-running action than what had been utilized since 2012. He did not completely disband the three-receiver, two-back sets that had been so successful with interior power runs, instead he blended the old and his new.

Because these two were part of staffs and worked with individuals who have spent time with higher profile quarterbacks, I was able to utilize data that I have collected over the past few years to compare trends within systems. The chart below highlights the distance traveled for each throw throughout the season sample. 

Sticking with the Mountaineers first, the splits between Grier’s 2017 campaign and Smith’s 2012 is startling. Just 62 percent of Grier’s passes were 10 yards or less, while Smith fell in line with Luke Falk’s Leach-led offense at Washington State at over 70 percent. As demonstrated throughout the years, Holgorsen was willing to adjust to his available personnel and utilize extreme passing splits if the skill sets dictated it.

Spavital’s influence is clear though, too. Grier, Goff and Manziel each finished with between 63 and 65 percent of their total targets traveling 10 yards or less while he was present. Some of the results depend on the decision-maker at quarterback, considering that Grier routinely had a receiver waiting in the flat if the defensive alignment gives the numbers advantage. Goff and Manziel were more willing to take the free yards, whereas Grier would ignore that option to be more aggressive downfield often.

Related: Stopping the RPO: How TCU Reshaped Their Defense to Defend Run-Pass Options

Giving the quarterback options by forcing defensive switches is always going to be the major theme of the offense, regardless of who is the influencing architect. Holgorsen rarely runs the popular mesh combination over the middle, but loves to utilize layers that are easy for the offense to execute but difficult for the defense to process, such as this running back mesh.

After becoming less defined by the Air Raid moniker for several years, there are still traditional Air Raid route combinations in the arsenal. For example, Holgorsen will never lose Leach-inspired favorites like this Cover 2 beater:

Leach refers to his version of this play as “Shakes”, but it is not exactly the same since Holgorsen has receivers go to the flat to combat pattern-match reads from defenders. His version also isolates the running back in the middle of the field in case it is man coverage, and his recruiting tactics to find capable receiving backs who are quicker-than-fast will show in those situations. 

The verticality of the offense with Grier and wide receiver David Sills is reminiscent of how the NBA has become more focused on the inefficiency of the mid-range shot. Spavital won't prioritize the intermediate throws significantly less than Holgorsen did in 2012, Leach in 2017 or Dykes in 2016, but the team found that Grier’s deep passing was their equivalent of the corner three-point shot.

Even as Grier missed the team’s final two games due to injury, the Mountaineers finished 13th in the country in passing yards-per-game with 309, not including 1,954 total yards on the ground. The previous two years, the team rushed for 2,967 and 2,969 yards, respectively. Few coaches in the country are as flexible and effective than Dana Holgorsen has been at West Virginia. His quarterback enters the year fifth in Heisman Trophy odds, and that statement would seem unfathomable two years ago, yet unsurprising six years ago.