MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Among the many signs of rapid acclimation to joining Dana Holgorsen’s staff, Joe Wickline strolled into the West Virginia football team room swigging from a can of Red Bull.
“Nah, it wasn’t part of my contract,” he joked. “I ran out of coffee and grabbed one of these because they’re available. I’m good about taking something for free.”
Yet the new offensive coordinator insists he isn’t taking many freedoms with the Mountaineers’ offense. He knows Holgorsen is the play-caller, so there’s none of the ambiguity that fueled lawsuits at Texas. And Wickline knows that his area of expertise, the offensive line, is led by accomplished coach in Ron Crook.
Wickline gave effusive praise to both men Wednesday, and it wasn’t the caffeine talking.
“Everything here has been nothing but sound with the offensive line,” he said, squashing the perception that his mere presence involved stepping on Crook’s toes. “Me and Ron talk a lot. We’ll go back in the office, get away from all those skill guys, close the door and talk about a step or a technique or your eyes or a fundamental.
“It’s been really good for me because I’ve learned a lot. Before it’s all said and done I think we’ll help each other.”
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Which led to the day’s primary refrain from Wickline: That West Virginia’s ego-tempered staff is more focused on developing players than who receives the credit. Sounds like the perfect company line from a new guy entering spring practice, though Wickline is respected by Holgorsen because they hashed out philosophical differences during their 2010 season at Oklahoma State.
Holgerson was making a one-year stopover in Stillwater, coordinating an offense that ranked third nationally in scoring and yardage. Wickline was in his sixth season with the Cowboys, trying to meld his line schemes with concepts Holgorsen brought from the Mike Leach tree.
“I didn’t know him and I was trying to adjust to him,” Wickline recalled. “I would come in all the time and say ‘This doesn’t make any sense. I don’t understand how this works.’”
When Holgorsen’s answers didn’t jibe, Wickline would come right out and say “I don’t really believe that. It ought to be done this way.”
“It ended up being a good chemistry, a good fit (at Oklahoma State). … He’s got no problem listening. It’s not like every single idea you bring up is shot down.” — Wickline on Dana Holgorsen
From those early crossings—“we’d go back-and-forth like a ping-pong game,” Wickline said—the pair found enough common ground to make Brandon Weeden a 4,000-yard passer, Kendall Hunter a Doak Walker finalist and Justin Blackmon a Biletnikoff winner.
They also put aside their pride enough to share credit for developing the diamond backfield formation. Six years later, neither claims the patent.
Asked again who sparked the idea during an OSU staff retreat, Wickline said: “Aww, I don’t know. From a wholistic standpoint—from what you do out of it and how it ultimately ended—it was both of us. From an origination standpoint, I don’t remember. Before it was all said and done, we got it done.”
The diamond involves a deep-set running back behind a Pistol quarterback flanked by blocking backs. So it’s fitting that Holgorsen appointed Wickline to focus on “hybrid players”—the H-backs, tight ends and fullbacks—while overlapping into the offensive tackles.
“He can tie everything together,” Holgorsen said.
One priority is shoring up pass protection: Over the last two seasons West Virginia ranked 85th and 90th nationally in sacks allowed.
“I’m very happy with Ron and the mentality he has installed into the offensive line guys,” Holgorsen said. “We’re really good at coming off the ball—we’ll stack up against anybody out there at being able to do that. We need help in pass-protection. That’s kind of the one area, looking back, where I don’t think we did a very good job.”
To that end, Wickline speaks of seeking nuanced changes involving techniques, reads, snap-counts and cadences to help linemen and blocking backs slow down the pass rush.
“We may move the spokes around, but we’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Fired in December after a two-year stint with the Longhorns, Wickline hasn’t expressed regret about leaving the security he built in nine seasons at Oklahoma State. Now he steps into an iffy situation at West Virginia where Holgorsen recently declined a contract extension to ride out a deal that expires after 2017.
“That’s part of the deal when you make a decision in our business,” Wickline said. “You go with what the results are even if it’s outside of your realm. Nobody said it would be fair and nobody said it would be easy.”