MORGANTOWN — This conversation did not take place.
But West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen and defensive coordinator Tony Gibson wish it would:
It’s Saturday, Aug. 30, about 8 a.m. at the team breakfast.
Defensive end Shaquille Riddick and spur safety KJ Dillon are at the same table.
“Hey, man,” says Riddick, “what are you doing this afternoon?”
“I’ll be out there playing against Alabama,” answers Dillon.
“Me, too,” says Riddick. “Meet you at the quarterback.”
“That’s a deal,” says Riddick, and they both laugh and do a fist bump.
See, getting to the quarterback, putting on a pass rush, has been maybe the most emphasized aspect of football in the Mountaineers’ camp which ended with a hard-hitting scrimmage on Saturday.
Now the players get to head into the dorms and their residences to begin school to say nothing of two weeks of preparation for the season opener against the Crimson Tide in Atlanta.
It began philosophically, this emphasis to improve a pass rush that accounted for just 16 sacks in a season in which 495 passes were thrown against the Mountaineers, with changing the defensive alignment. WVU went back to a 3-3-5 formation that gives freedom to send more people off the edge at the quarterback.
Riddick is probably the key to it all, even though he has never played a down of FBS football, let alone a down for WVU. He just graduated from Gardner-Webb, an FCS school, but was dominant enough to be an All-American.
How that translates to going each week against a 330-pound tackle and maybe a fullback or tight end is questionable, but the Mountaineers are confident that he can pull it off, and nothing he did in Saturday’s scrimmage did anything to lessen their confidence.
In fact, as the pass rush is envisioned, Riddick is the centerpiece but a couple of other players whose names are not well known yet work into the picture — junior college linebacker Edward Muldrow and junior linebacker Brandon Golson.
“If I don’t have those three on the field on third down, something’s wrong,” Gibson said. “Those three guys, we feel, are going to be good matchups for us. They’re really able to get after the quarterback.”
Riddick is the centerpiece, the one WVU projects as forcing offenses to make adjustments to block.
Standing 6-foot-6 and lean at 240 pounds, he drew Gibson’s attention immediately upon coming across him on the recruiting trail.
“I watched Shaq’s video on my cell phone,” Gibson said. “I watched about eight to 10 plays and said we need to get this guy.”
And there are good reasons, but like so many kids out of smaller schools, Riddick’s crude and been getting by on ability alone with little regard for technique.
“There’s certain things he does well and certain things he needs to work on,” Gibson said. “He’s long; he’s quick. He’s putting heat on the tackle right now. We have to make sure we have him matched up with the tackle.”
What Riddick does best he does with speed. That’s his strength, but the coaches are trying to make him technically better and stronger, maybe even put 10 pounds of weight on.
“If you have the technique, the other parts will come naturally,” assistant coach Damon Cogdell said.
“He has a great attitude. He’s the first one here, the last one to leave. He asks a lot of questions.
“He’s going to be a good kid for us but he has to learn the defense inside-out.”
Throughout camp, the coaching staff did a lot of experimenting, all of it aimed at knowing what they planned to rep for Alabama.
“Shaq’s playing everywhere. We’re rotating them in with the 1s and 2s, hoping we don't get to the point where we have a set 1 and 2 unit up front,” assistant coach Tom Bradley added. “We’d like to get a rotation going with our people to keep them fresh. Who starts and how they play the game. A lot of (playing time) may depend on the game and the type of team we're playing.”
But playing in the Big 12, you better be able to rush the passer.
“We’re getting better,” Bradley said. “We’re working a lot of different things, different people. Continuity is going to get better as we keep going.”
Bradley wanted to make a point, though, that the Big 12 is a quick release conference and the answer isn’t found only in the number of sacks.
“A lot of times, too, with pass rush, people talk about sacks. I’m a big believer in tipped balls, knocked down balls, get a couple tipped passes. That’s a big help, too. So we’re working on getting in front of people and getting our hands up. It’s about doing all the little things that make your pass rush good. It’s not always about the sacks.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel