Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia team will meet up with Nick Saban and the No. 2 Crimson Tide, who as owners of a two-game losing streak, figure to be a particularly disagreeable band of red-robed marauders.
What’s it like preparing as a 25-point underdog? What’d he learn from Alabama’s late-season failings in 2013? Holgorsen took some time out for Fox Sports Southwest on Thursday, a little over a week before the season begins.
Note: Portions of this interview were edited for length.
What are a few of the things you’ve learned about your team in fall camp so far?
Dana Holgorsen: There wasn’t nearly as many unknowns as there have been in the past couple years, just because we’ve got so many guys coming back that have got experience. They’re familiar with the system on all three sides of the ball, got a lot of guys coming back. We’re not relying on too many new guys to get out there and play. We learn something each and every day, but there were a lot less unknowns this year. I feel good about that.
So what are some of the questions you’ve got about your team with a season a week or so away?
DH: Oh, probably the same as everybody who’s going into a new year. Just because it’s a new year, you can have guys coming back and the same schemes on all three sides of the ball and every team still has different dynamics. You’ve got to wait and see how continuity goes, you’ve got to see how guys develop from one year to the next. We’re learning about the chemistry in the locker room and who’s stepping up and who can play at a higher level.
What are some of those things you’ve learned about chemistry so far?
DH: I don’t think you can truly figure that out until you get under the gun. You’ve got to get them into games and the old adage of you’re not going to figure out about your team or make any improvements until you start playing games. I believe in that. Like probably everybody else in football this time of year, you kind of know about about your team, but not technically know which way they’re going to head until you get into live competition stuff. I feel good about how guys are working, though. We’re still in preseason mode right now and have maintained a ton of health and developed depth, but how highly they can perform has yet to be determined because they haven’t played in an actual game yet.
Who are a few guys who maybe weren’t major contributors a year ago that you’re excited to see get a shot in a game?
DH: Offensively, Rushel Shell has played well. I’m anxious to see him in a game-type situation. Shelton Gibson is a guy who’s got talent that we haven’t seen in a game situation yet. Shaq Riddick (a transfer from FCS Gardner-Webb) is a pass-rushing guy that’s done some good things for us. Edward Muldrow is a linebacker that has shown some twitch and can do some things. Dravon Henry is going to be a good player for us. How he responds when the lights come on, we’re anxious to see. I’m not saying those guys had the best camps of anybody on our team, it’s just those guys haven’t played a game in a West Virginia uniform before and they had good camps and we’re excited to see them.
Did you know Riddick before he came to you guys or how did that come about?
DH: He’s from Akron, which is relatively close to here up in Ohio. I think he drove close to Morgantown when he was on his way back to Gardner-Webb down in North Carolina. So I think going from North Carolina to Ohio, he was able to drive through West Virginia a little bit, so I think that had been on his mind, wishing he was able to play here.
Is there a difference in the team when you prepare for a game like this against Alabama vs. when you open with an FCS team, or is that overstated?
DH: Yeah, I think there’s a difference. It doesn’t change anything we do coaching-wise or preparation-wise, how we practice or what we talk about. It doesn’t change any of that, but starting in January, our guys walk by the game schedule on the wall or in the weight room or posted online. They always look at the schedule and they always look at who the first game is. Subconsciously, I think we’ve got a lot of work, a very motivated group and understand that we’re playing one of the best teams in the country. I think it increases their attention and their work ethic through the entire offseason, but from a coaching point of view, it doesn’t change anything.
How would you describe the environment in camp when you prepare for a game like this vs. your other experiences at OSU or Houston or Tech when you maybe didn’t open with a marquee game?
DH: Probably more motivated, higher intensity workouts. I’m a big proponent of big neutral site games to start the year off. If you look at our schedule or our future schedule, we’ve scheduled games like this against quality opponents at neutral sites. I think it’s great for college football and for the fan base. It gives them something to look forward to during the 7-8 months they’re not able to think about football. In addition to that, the overall motivated team as far as getting good work in the offseason, I do think it subconsciously affects that as well.
How often do you broach the odds or things like being a big underdog with your team?
DH: We don’t talk about that. They know we’re facing a quality team. They know we’re facing a team that’s won national championships here recently and throughout the course of the last 80 decades as well. It’s not something we have to talk about, whether we’re big underdogs or big favorites, you’ve got to try to reach them and prepare for the best and prepare to put your best foot forward. We know it’s going to be a challenge. I don’t have to talk about that. The work’s been good. We’re going to be motivated knowing we’ve got a challenge ahead of us.
So you don’t really try to tap into that "Us against the world" mentality and insulate the team? Maybe you’re not talking about it explicitly, but is there an air of that sometimes?
DH: I think the more you talk about it, the worse it can probably be. I don’t know, sometimes we reach them, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we take the right approach, sometimes we don’t. What we’ve got to lean on as coaches and try to figure out as coaches is how can we best prepare our team in practice and prepare for what we’re going to see in a game.
When was the first time you put in Alabama game tape?
DH: As a staff, we’re just getting into that right now. We’ve caught our kids going into the film rooms watching it over the course of the last month. It’s been on their mind more than it’s been on our mind as coaches. We’ve got to develop depth charts, implement our schemes offensively, defensively, special teams prior to when we can focus on an opponent. I don’t think anybody starts camp and starts focusing on one opponent. Throughout the course of the year, you only get one week to prepare for an opponent, so I think you can overkill that if you’re not careful. We finished camp and focused on all three sides of the ball and this week started school and started slowly implementing what our game plans are going to be.
How many times do you think you’ve watched the Sugar Bowl from last year?
DH: Well, they played 13 opponents last year so we’ve watched each and every one of those and we’ll obviously be doing what everybody else will do, which is try to figure out what our plans going to be on all three sides of the ball, not just offensively, match up some opponents to get some idea of how people attack specific schemes and sides of the ball.
Do we focus on some games more than others? Yes, but whether that’s the Sugar Bowl or that’s game one, that’s between me and my staff.
How many coaches do you reach out to during the offseason to glean some insight when you go into a season opener like this, whether it’s idle chatter or intentional conversations with coaches who have seen Alabama more often?