We continue our pre-season West Virginia football coverage with our Mountaineers’ 2020 offensive line preview.
Mountaineers’ 2020 Offensive Line Preview
The Decent, The Bad, And The Ugly From 2019
It is certainly no secret that West Virginia’s offensive line played poorly in 2019. The linemen don’t deny it. Head Coach Neal Brown certainly doesn’t shy away from the fact. As we discussed in our quarterback and running back previews, the pass protection from the unit was decent, but the run blocking ranged from bad to ugly.
Informed fans, however, anticipated a big step back in the offensive line’s performance for a few reasons.
Perhaps more than any other position, the jump from prep to Power 5 football requires the most development from the players. The size and condition of the average defensive lineman from whom the most punishment will come jumps exponentially. Conditioning, strength, and technical skills becomes paramount. Those things take time and repetition. And a unit won’t, by nature, develop those things during the course of a season. That comes in the off-season. That is where the most improvement takes place.
In an ideal setting, an offensive line would feature three seniors and two juniors, each of whom has logged at least 1,200 snaps, and their backups would be juniors and red-shirt sophomores, with an average snap count exceeding 400 per backup. In blowout games, you would except some freshman and sophomores to get a dozen snaps each.
Immediately after the 2018 season, West Virginia looked to have a good nucleus of returning offensive linemen. Colton McKivitz, Kelby Wickline, and Matt Jones would be senior starters. Josh Sills and Chase Behrndt would be junior starters. Jacob Buccigrossi would be a junior backup. The starters and one backup would have had the ideal experience level. That would leave four unproven backups to be developed through the season.
From Lack of Depth to Lack of Starters
Instead, the Mountaineers saw Jones transfer, Buccigrossi retire, and Sills suffer a season-ending shoulder injury early in the year. As a result, the Mountaineers were left with three ideal starters and no meaningful depth.
Once West Virginia lost Sills, only two starters, McKivitz and Behrndt, were suitably conditioned through multiple seasons to make the most of their snaps. Wickline made a third veteran body that had just over 200 Power 5 snaps under his belt. The Mountaineers relied on a combination of four first-time players, three of whom (Briason Mays, James Gmiter, and John Hughes) were in their second college season. The other, Michael Brown, had only played 10 college snaps prior to 2019.
As a result, the Mountaineers’ offensive line in 2019 returned less than 1,500 total snaps from the 2018 version. That is a lot of production to replace, especially when the replacements combined for only 10 college-level snaps.
2020 Mountaineers’ Offensive Line Preview
Reasons for Hope
While the results in the running game particularly were historically bad, there is reason to believe the offensive line will improve substantially in 2020. The Mountaineers lose only two offensive linemen. The line returns over 2,300 snaps from 2019. And each of the starters will have gained another offseason of conditioning. Two linemen are entering their fifth and final years, while three are entering their third years, when their bodies have sufficiently matured and adjusted to the level of play.
While this reality remains less than ideal, Offensive Line Coach Matt Moore is known for eliciting toughness out of his offensive lines. And the jump from the second to third year of college-level conditioning makes a huge difference. Now, the technical skills Moore drills through repetition make a bigger impact on the field, and the players make more of their snaps, adjusting more rapidly. These things matter. And while it supports Coach Brown’s caution that he expects incremental improvement to the running game, it will show up more readily in the passing game.
Realistically, six players are competing for the five starting spots.
A top-50 tackle for the Class of 2018, Junior Uzebu gained a reputation in high school as a defiant run blocker. With two years of college conditioning under his belt, he projects as the starting left tackle. His mentor at the position, McKivitz earned a fifth-round draft bid after being a rare bright spot for the 2019 unit.
A 10-game starter with just under 600 snaps under his belt, Gmiter will compete for the left guard spot. Redshirt senior Chase Behrndt will likely start at either left guard or center, and he has taken over 1,200 snaps in his career. Behrndt likely overtakes Gmiter at left guard by the beginning of the season.
Mays was a bit outmatched at the center position in terms of size and strength last season. Provided he has made the most of his offseason, however, Mays could close that gap almost entirely. Based primarily on his technical proficiency at the position, Mays earned the starting nod just before the midway point last season. We expect him to hold onto that position.
Redshirt senior Michael Brown will start at right guard this season. Brown will look to take his size and strength to the next level this year. Look for him to be dramatically improved this season.
Finally, junior John Hughes, a natural tackle who played over 100 snaps last season mostly at guard, should earn the starting right tackle spot.
Though the six listed above are the most likely starters, the Mountaineers have some depth to challenge them. While these players have not tallied substantial snaps at the Division I level yet, they have multiple years of conditioning behind them. Brandon Yates, Parker Moorer, Blaine Scott, Donavan Beaver, and Zach Davis all have at least one full season of conditioning with the program. Additionally, newcomer Tairiq Stewart played extremely well at the junior college level, and he could at least provide a nice boost of depth through the early season.
If one of the starting tackles miss time due to injury, Stewart, Yates, and Moorer are the most likely candidates to replace them. If one of the guards goes down, or if Behrndt has to replace Mays at center, then look for Beaver or Davis to fill in.
In addition to Stewart, Coach Moore added three high school recruits to the roster through the 2020 recruiting class. Chris Mayo offers the highest long-term ceiling. Jordan White should develop into a starter in a few years. The most intriguing as an immediate fill-in, however, is Zach Frazier. The Fairmont product earned four state wrestling championships in high school. Frazier’s unique combination of intelligence, work ethic, and strength led to success on the mat and on the field. Frazier could earn snaps this season at center as a result.