Will Grier threw 18 touchdown passes to David Sills IV in 2017. That’s remarkable, and not least of all because Grier broke a finger on his throwing hand during the third to last game of the year and missed the second half of that game and then the final two games of the season. Sills still finished no. 1 in TD receptions on the year despite back-up Chris Chugonov failing to find him in the red zone over the final three games of the year.
Grier’s finger has been fixed and he’s now back, along with Sills, to threaten the Big 12 with one of the more dangerous combos in league history. Their union came in the perfect time, in the perfect league, and in the perfect offense. When both determined to come back for another go in 2018 the rest of the league probably panicked at least a little.
The iso man in the West Virginia offense
West Virginia went full bore into RPOs under Dana Holgorsen early on, building the offense around the typical Air Raid route combos and then attaching pass options to basic spread runs like inside zone and counter. However, they haven’t always been that good at the QB position under Holgorsen until recently when they finally went all-in on the transfer era. That netted them the perfect QB for this system in Will Grier and a better talent for this system than Holgorsen had coached since he had Brandon Weeden back at Oklahoma State.
With Grier and his stronger arm mixed in, West Virginia was able to add more Art Briles-Baylor into the offense with wider splits to create more spacing for the run game and then iso/choice routes to punish teams deep. Their system works mostly like any other spread RPO offense now, if you vacate a zone or receiver in order to get an extra man up front to stop the run then they’ll hit that zone or receiver with a pass.
If you play the RPO game well enough the typical response from offenses is to play more man coverage so that you can’t hit the receivers with a quick bubble screen or stop route but the defense can still get an extra man to help defend the run. Now the game becomes whether the offense has any receiver that can command safety help by consistently beating man coverage.
Enter David Sills the IV.
The interesting thing about Sills is that he was a QB for a very long time. Lane Kiffin offered him a scholarship to play QB for USC when he was only in seventh grade. That fell apart, of course, and Sills ended up coming to West Virginia instead. Interestingly enough, the one time “greatest prospect” couldn’t beat out weaker armed JUCO transfer Skyler Howard for the QB job and ended up running routes for the scout team. It was there that his 6-3 frame, strong hands, and natural athleticism finally began to shine and the coaches determined to get him on the field at WR. He played some early, then transferred to a JUCO to take one more stab at QB, before transferring back to West Virginia for the 2017 season having accepted his fate as a receiver.
It’s funny watching him now to recall that it was his arm that really impressed people.
Now it’s his footwork and hands that stand out as the elite attributes that will undoubtedly earn him an opportunity to play at the next level. When combined with Grier’s ability to zip off accurate passes into tight windows...
...they were a devastating combo in the red zone, where 12 of his 18 TD catches came.
The Houston Rockets got a ton of flak this season for their style of “spread-iso” basketball. Here’s the deal though, they’d perfected the spread pick’n’roll offense to the point where good playoff opponents had given up on trying help off the shooters they’d put on the floor around James Harden and Chris Paul and were instead switching screens (Golden State) or dropping to the basket (Utah) in order to make Harden and Paul beat people off the dribble. From there it was a natural evolution for Houston to assume that an opponent was going to switch a screen and look to get Harden isolated on the worst opposing defender after a switch. The Cleveland Cavalier offense works in a similar fashion with LeBron James, he’s probably isolated against Steph Curry hundreds of times over the last four years in the NBA Finals.
Spread RPO offenses incur a similar effect with their simple approach to offense. After a while defenses figured out that allowing teams to throw wide open bubble routes to <4.6 athletes was a losing proposition. Now we’re at the point where the offense more or less knows what they’re getting from the defense and it’s often man coverage on the removed receivers and a dare to either beat that coverage or to run the ball down the field honestly. Eventually you have to determine that it’s safer to play man coverage on a good receiver than to try to tackle a good athlete in space.
The alternative is to have the receivers master a variety of man beating routes or else to isolate a guy like Grier where he can be targeted. West Virginia does some of each. Here’s an example of an iso route:
The Mountaineers are in a double TE set and running a counter play into the boundary. But Will Grier has a good idea of what he’s getting from Iowa State and after the snap he’s verifying that the safety to Grier’s side is coming down to help against the run and then quickly firing the slant.
It’s all about the footwork here, both for the WR and the QB. The former has to make sure that he gets inside of the CB so that he can beat him to the ball while the latter needs to be able to get his feet set quickly and organically (not on a timed drop) so that he can get a good ball out in that narrow window of time. Sills is excellent on both the inside routes (slants and posts) as well as the outside fade, where his length and good hands make him very dangerous. But then he uses his ability to threaten defenders with either the inside or outside route to throw footwork at them to create hesitation and space to blow by.
Then there are the rub routes, where Sills truly excels:
Sills is probably nowhere near the elites at his position in terms of pure speed but he knows how to beat press coverage and use his feet to create a clear path. When he gets a rub from another receiver he knows exactly how to manipulate it to break open.
The dynamic duo in 2018
A major component to the excellence of Grier-to-Sills was that the run game was good enough to create some opportunities for Sills to avoid facing a safety over the top. Additionally, KaRaun White helped Sills avoid facing a safety over the top because White had 1012 yards and 12 TDs in his own right.
The 2018 Mountaineers are returning most of their OL, including both tackles, and their also returning their top receiver (who actually wasn’t White or Sills but possession man Gary Jennings). They’re losing big play White though as well as lead back Justin Crawford. Presumably the emergence of Alabama transfer T.J. Simmons or perhaps more growth from Marcus Simms will serve to keep teams from being able to weight their coverage to Sills too often. In this environment it’s also hard to see the Mountaineer run game failing to do major damage working against defenses that will have to concern themselves first with stopping big passing plays.
The big question though is what could be possible for Grier-to-Sills in year two. Provided that West Virginia can run the ball or package their offense well enough to get Sills in man-to-man situations, a full offseason with him and Grier devoted to sharpening their assault on Big 12 defenses could be devastating. There’s still a lot of unexplored potential in this partnership as there really isn’t a ceiling to what can be done when a QB and WR get into tight sync against coverages. Last year they tended to use White as the big play man, Jennings as the chain mover, and Sills as the red zone target.
Watch for West Virginia to isolate David Sills a good deal more in 2018 and try to ride this tandem in more situations in order to win their first Big 12 championship.