MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There must be something about West Virginia University that keeps luring back its former assistant football coaches.
We’ve seen it many times before, from guys such as Rick Trickett, Steve Dunlap, Doc Holliday, Dave McMichael, Tony Gibson, Lonnie Galloway, Ja’Juan Seider, Bruce Tall to now Tony Dews, these country roads seem to keep bringing them home.
After spending three years as a graduate assistant coach for Don Nehlen and Rich Rodriguez in the early 2000s, Dews spread his wings by working at California University (Pennsylvania), Holy Cross, Central Michigan and then UNLV before returning to Morgantown to coach WVU’s receivers in 2007.
When Rodriguez got the Michigan job, Dews spent three seasons with him in Ann Arbor, then one year with Todd Graham at Pitt in 2011, and then five more seasons with Rodriguez in Arizona before returning to his Eastern roots.
The former Liberty product grew up in Clifton, Virginia, in suburban D.C. His wife, Tamika, is from York, Pennsylvania.
“I’m excited to be back in a familiar place - a place with a lot of tradition and a lot of winning tradition,” Dews said earlier this spring. “It’s a place I’ve been a part of before so I’m excited about that. Does it help being close to mom? Yes. Does it help for my wife to be close to her mom again? Yes.
“It’s a chance for my kids to be around their grandparents and their cousins more often now,” he continued. “If I’m away on the road, the wife and kids can hop in a car now and see her family. When it’s Thanksgiving we can have family in our house, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had that opportunity.”
The opportunity for Dews to return to West Virginia was unquestionably facilitated by the strong relationship he developed with Tony Gibson. The two worked together for a year at WVU, then three seasons at Michigan, one year at Pitt and also the short time Gibson was at Arizona before he returned to WVU in 2014.
Two and a half years later, when Dana Holgorsen had an opening on his staff once running backs coach Ja’Juan Seider left for a similar role in his native Florida, Dews was a logical choice to replace him - even though his coaching experience has been mostly with wide receivers and tight ends, the position he played in college at Liberty.
“Presence was the No. 1 thing that struck me with him,” Holgorsen said. “He has that voice that carries across the room. With our running backs you have to teach receiver skills. Ja’ Juan was a running backs coach for maybe a year or so before he got here. To me, a skill guy on offense is a skill guy on offense, whether it is running backs, receivers, tight ends or quarterbacks, all those are the same.
“They’re in a lot of the same meetings and run a lot of the same things,” Holgorsen added. “He has good ideas when it comes to that. I don’t think you need to hire guys that just have an expertise at one position.”
But what you do hire coaches for are the relationships they have in key recruiting areas. Dews has those in Maryland and Virginia, two critical nearby states that have gone uncovered since Lonnie Galloway left in March 2016 for a promotion at Louisville.
Galloway was responsible for a numbers of players in the Washington, D.C., Northern Virginia, Maryland area that have been so productive for the Mountaineers in recent years, most notably NFL first-rounder Tavon Austin.
It’s an easy place to go to recruit and West Virginia’s brand is strong enough in those areas for Dews to make some headway. When Dews was at Arizona, he always made it a point to hit Northern Virginia once a year during the springtime.
“What I did was I would take four or five days in the spring and come over and go to a couple of different places, really where everyone kind of went so to speak,” Dews explained. “If we could get a list of 10 or 15 guys that were interested (in Arizona) then I recruited them. If I didn’t have any interest then I didn’t come back out, but I remained in contact with all the different high school coaches in those areas over the years because you never know where you’re going to end up in this profession.”
Some of them were teammates in high school and college.
“One of the things that will be nice is instead of just spot recruiting it I can saturate it and get in as many schools as I can now,” Dews noted. “Some of the newer schools I want to get in and start building those relationships.”
Dews also wants to get into as many high schools in Maryland as possible, too.
“The thing I’ve noticed in the last 10-years-plus is football in the state of Maryland has gotten so much better as a whole,” Dews said. “It was good in pockets but it seems like the whole state the quality of football, the coaches … those guys are doing a great job and it seems like they are putting a little more emphasis on it and those kids are going all over the place to go play. And I am biased about Virginia because I grew up there, but I think high school football in Virginia is really good throughout the state.”
Dews will cover more than just the National Capital Region. At Arizona, he recruited the juco circuit, which has now become a priority for West Virginia, and he also handled different territories when he worked at Michigan. He landed defensive lineman Mike Martin out of Detroit, and he also lured offensive tackle Taylor Lewan out of Scottsdale, Arizona.
Both players are currently in the NFL.
“I’m just a guy going out and selling West Virginia,” Dews said. “The brand has kind of sold itself for the last couple of decades.”
As for the running backs he’s now coaching, Dews appears to have a terrific group with which to work, including returning 1,000-yard rusher Justin Crawford and promising sophomore Martell Pettaway.
And, in sophomore Kennedy McKoy and freshman Tevin Bush, he’s got two backs versatile enough to possibly slip out to slot receiver in certain situations.
“If you can find guys who can potentially do both it only helps the team and it helps them,” Dews said. “Sometimes it allows you to play a little faster tempo without having to sub personnel out.
“It’s good to have depth and right now there is some pretty good depth at that position. My job is to try and continue to develop them and hopefully we can get them all ready,” he concluded.