Things are going to look a little different when the Mountaineers take the field for the first time in 2015.
Most notably, there’s a new leader in town, and he’s got two first names. All jokes and Ricky Bobby comparisons aside, Skyler Howard has made the leap from relatively unknown JUCO transfer to starting quarterback in one of the most QB-driven leagues in the nation in record time. He’s got all the tools to play at this level: arm strength, decision making, and mobility. At 6-foot, 202-pounds, Howard possesses a strong, athletic frame which he can move at 4.6 second 40-yard speed. That’s right, he wants to go fast.
So too does Dana Holgorsen, who is back in a familiar role coaching quarterbacks and calling plays after the departure of assistant coach Shannon Dawson. Unless you’re new to college football, you know that Holg’s name is synonymous with the “Air Raid” offensive system. The name isn’t meant to fool anyone, this system is predicated on chucking the rock, and doing it often. Holgorsen’s personal brand of the Air Raid has been churning out statistically gaudy quarterbacks at every stop since 2005, but this year’s man-at-the-helm has a chance to set himself apart from the slew of talented Dana disciples.
Mountaineer Nation got its first look at Howard last October, when a comfortable WVU lead over Kansas earned its starters an early rest. Howard got two full series in the backfield in that game, his only highlight being a 20-yard run on his second FBS carry. It wasn’t until late November that most Mountaineer fans learned the name Skyler Howard. Down 20-3 at home in the third quarter to No. 12 Kansas State, Howard was thrust onto the national stage. He responded with a 79-yard drive complete with 4-of-4 passing and a 16-yard run which set up the first touchdown of the day for WVU, not to mention the first of Howard’s career. The comeback fell just short that day, but 15-of-23 with 198 yards and two scores loudly announced the presence of the sophomore transfer.
In the final two games of the season, both starts for Howard, there were some considerable highs mixed with some equally glaring lows. On the upside, a combined 631 yards and six touchdowns to zero interceptions, is a great start to any collegiate career. On the other side, Howard completed just 41 of his 85 passes in those starts, good for 48 percent. The yardage amassed through the air in those games is just further evidence that Dana’s system is really, really good. But what Howard did with his legs in short action last season has been the thing keeping Big 12 defensive coordinators from sleeping this summer. In his first career start against Iowa State, Howard ran seven times for 69 yards, the most yards gained on the ground by a WVU quarterback since Jarrett Brown rushed for 73 back in September of 2009.
Running the ball became a major focus for the WVU offense last season, with a total of 563 rushing attempts. To put that into perspective, that’s the most carries in a season for the Mountaineers since 2007 when Rich Rod tallied up 628 rushes (and conversely, threw it just 176 times). For Dana, it was by far the most rushing attempts one of his offenses has ever seen, and it was the first time in his career that his offense had fewer passes than rushes. Before last season, the Holgorsen Air Raid system had always been able to run the ball effectively, it just didn’t do it very often. Personnel dictated that change in 2014, and we may very well see it again in the upcoming campaign, but this time with a new wrinkle.
Howard gives Dana his first, and really only, dual-threat quarterback since Geno Smith. Geno’s mobility was rarely used as anything but an absolute last resort. When you take away sacks from his rushing total, the former Mountaineer front man had only 47 carries in his entire senior season (he now occasionally runs the read-option for the Jets in the NFL). Howard had 18 carries in just two and half games and even when you factor in the four times he was sacked, the kid still averaged 6.4 yards per carry (Geno averaged 2.3 yards per carry in 2012). While you could argue that’s a very small sample size, you can’t argue what that element brings to an already prolific offensive system. It’s also inarguable that Howard has defined dual-threat quarterback everywhere he has played, and taking his legs away from him would be forcing him to play outside of himself.
If he keeps to the pace he set in his first two starts, Howard will run more than any other quarterback who has ever played in a Dana Holgorsen coached offense. If the Mountaineers wish to expand on last season’s step forward in the Big 12, they need their quarterback to perform at his highest level possible. For Howard, that means a healthy dose of ground and pound.
Dana fought every control-freak football coach bone in his body last season and showed a willingness to change schemes in order to fit personnel, but he’s going to have to go to a previously unheard of level of football coach submission if Skyler Howard is to reach his full dual-threat potential. If he does, the Mountaineers could continue their ascension within the Big 12 as well as the national rankings. If he doesn’t, well, if you ain’t first, you’re last.
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