Now that we have officially entered Alabama's first game week of the season, let's take a look at Clint Trickett, the starting quarterback for the West Virginia Mountaineers, and the rest of the West Virginia offense to see what Alabama fans can expect on Saturday.
Under head coach Dana Holgorsen, the Mountaineers employ the "Air Raid" offense. As Chris Brown (an incredible football writer who you should check out immediately) puts it, Holgorsen's offensive plan is to "put speed in space in a way that could allow any quarterback to succeed" (read the rest of his excellent article on Holgorsen and West Virginia here). The Mountaineers rely on simplicity and repetition to make the offense second nature for its players.
Prior to arriving in Morgantown, Holgorsen's offense was highly successful at Texas Tech, Houston (where Case Keenum destroyed defenses in his sleep), and Oklahoma State. In 2012, Holgorsen's first season as head coach at West Virginia, the Mountaineers beat Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl, but WVU took a step back last year going 4-8. Now, a look at the quarterback who will lead the offense against the Tide - Clint Trickett.
Trickett, a 3-star prospect out of high school according to Rivals, enrolled at Florida State and played sparingly as a backup until transferring in May 2013 to West Virginia. Trickett was named the starter before the Oklahoma State game after the Mountaineers got off to a 2-2 start including a 37-0 shellacking they took from Maryland. Trickett was decent, putting up OK numbers (1,605 yards, 7 touchdowns, 7 interceptions) but only winning two games (a surprising upset win over Oklahoma State and a win over TCU). Trickett is also the star of one of the more amazing gifs from last season (click the image to check it out).
Trickett's numbers coming into 2014 are not impressive considering the offensive firepower that Holgorsen coached teams are capable of (think Keenum at Houston, Justin Blackmon and Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State). For Holgorsen's offense to succeed, he needs a quarterback who can be quick in making reads and getting the ball in the receiver's hands while also not throwing many interceptions. In his playing time last year, Trickett did neither of these things well.
Before we see where Trickett went wrong last year, let's take a look at some of his successes from 2013 and how he could create similar successes against Alabama on Saturday. This offense thrives off of quick reads and passes. Trickett's 74-yard touchdown pass against Iowa State is a perfect example of what Holgorsen wants his offense to do. As you watch from the 1:21 mark of this video, notice Trickett's quick read as he fakes the handoff and notices man-to-man coverage on the outside receiver. The receiver gets separation on his slant route, Trickett makes the quick read and throw, and the receiver races for a touchdown.
Similarly, against Oklahoma State Trickett (video here) makes a quick read of the defense, notices man coverage on the outside receiver, and lofts a beauty of a pass to the end zone for a touchdown. Look for Trickett and West Virginia to pass the ball quickly out of the snap against Alabama to pick on man-to-man coverage by the inexperienced Tide cornerbacks.
Now, the two previous plays were Clint Trickett throwing great passes against below-average defenses that are shown on highlight reels. In reality, the two plays shown earlier were a couple of the best throws Trickett threw all year. More often than not, Trickett did not live up to this highlight-reel standard.
Against TCU, in what was the best game Trickett played all season, he threw for 267 yards, two TDs, two INTs, and completed 61% of his passes. Those aren't Keenum/Weeden/a good Air Raid quarterback's numbers. If Trickett throws his best passes due to making good reads of the defense, he throws his worst passes because of making, you guessed it, bad reads of the defense.
Take a look at this video to see an interception Trickett threw against TCU last season. Trickett is intending to throw to the receiver breaking across the middle about 15 yards downfield. Trickett doesn't read the linebackers playing a shallow zone coverage and throws the ball under and behind the breaking receiver right into the arms of the middle linebacker who barely has to jump.
Despite the Air Raid being more prone to short passes for its success, Trickett will have to throw deep passes if he wants to have success against Alabama. The Mountaineers will not be able to establish any kind of offense if they can't spread the field against the Alabama defense. This need to establish a deep threat could lead to success for Alabama. Against Oklahoma State last season (seen here), Trickett sees man coverage with no safety help down the field for his outside receiver and throws an absolute gift to the Oklahoma State cornerback. If Trickett makes throws like this against Alabama, the cornerbacks and safeties will be able to feast.
Trickett is a quarterback that looked decent last year in a system designed to make quarterbacks looks incredible. The fact that Holgorsen named Trickett the starter for opener against Alabama either shows that Trickett has made tremendous strides in the offseason following shoulder surgery or that West Virginia merely doesn't have any other decent quarterbacks.
Look for Alabama to put pressure on Trickett early in the game. Alabama is a team that loves to shift its defense around before the snap, which will make it even harder for Trickett to make good pre-snap reads. Although West Virginia is not a very good team, I think this game will be a good way of gauging the cornerback's progress in the offseason. Trickett's quick throws will put a lot of pressure on the young Alabama cornerbacks and force them to make plays or get beat down the field. Trickett's ability to make solid reads and throws against a tough Alabama defense will be the difference in West Virginia keeping it close or getting blown out. If he fails to do so, West Virginia's offense could sputter and the Tide defense could force turnovers early and often.