WVU football: Many first-game tests face new, dueling coordinators

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Tony Gibson hardly could have asked for a more difficult debut as West Virginia’s defensive coordinator. The Mountaineers’ opponent Saturday in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta is No. 2 Alabama, winner of three of the past five national championships.

As if it weren’t a tall enough task already, the Crimson Tide has yet to name a starting quarterback — speedy Blake Sims or pocket-passer Jacob Coker — and the man across the way, Lane Kiffin, is making his debut as Alabama’s offensive coordinator 11 months after being unceremoniously ousted as Southern California’s head coach.

Preparation has been a logistical nightmare for the West Virginia defensive staff, which has split its time between USC and Alabama game film and is trying to scout two quarterbacks with different styles who never have started a game.

West Virginia senior associate head coach Tom Bradley expects it to be “a balancing act.”

“Will Coach Kiffin bring in his wrinkles? Absolutely,” Bradley said earlier this week. “What they are, we don’t know. … You just try to take a guess and figure out what they may be trying to get done.”

Every defensive coordinator will agree in-game adjustments are crucial, but, with the uncertainties blanketing the powerful Alabama offense, it will be more important than ever.

“If we’re having issues, we’re not going to wait until halftime [to make fixes],” Gibson said. “It may be over by then.”

Alabama coach Nick Saban said he doesn’t plan on micromanaging Kiffin, either.

“I think you can really mess a guy up if you question what he does,” Saban said. “… It’s just like players. I get on the corners when they get the ball thrown over their head in practice, but I’m over there rubbing their neck in the game so they don’t get it thrown over their head again.

“When a game comes, man, you’ve got to go with what you’ve got and try to get them to do it the best they can.”

West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said the dueling first-year coordinators story line isn’t such a major factor since neither system was overhauled in the offseason.

“It’s not a wholesale change,” Holgorsen said. “I can assure you that when Coach Saban hired Coach Kiffin, it wasn’t, ‘I want you to change the entire thing.’ Coach Saban had an idea of what he wants to do offensively, which isn’t a whole lot different than what USC was doing the previous couple years as well.”

So, for all the chatter, Alabama’s approach isn’t all that much of a mystery, is it?

“Not really,” Gibson said, with a laugh. He gave a nod toward the three-headed backfield attack of T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake. “When you average 6[feet] 5, 330 [pounds] across the front and have three tailbacks, we know what No. 1 is going to be. They’re going to run it, run it a little bit more and then try to throw it over our heads every once in a while.”

Gibson will bring in a new flavor, too. He began the defensive rehabilitation by re-installing the 3-3-5 defense previously used under defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel in 2011. The scheme employs three down lineman, three true linebackers and five defensive backs — two corners, a safety and two hybrid safeties/outside linebackers.

With any luck, Gibson’s defense can catch the Crimson Tide off balance. Earlier this week, Alabama standout receiver Amari Cooper called the 3-3-5 “a pretty weird defense,” one he never has faced before.

Gibson credited the defense with picking up the scheme quickly.

“With four different coordinators in four years, these guys were like freshmen every year, trying to learn the new scheme,” Gibson said. “I think they’re hungry, a little bit embarrassed. I’d be shocked if we don’t go out and play with great effort. But does that mean we’re going to play mistake-free? No.”

For more on West Virginia football, read All ’Eers. Stephen J. Nesbitt: snesbitt@post-gazette.com and Twitter @stephenjnesbitt.

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