2022 WVU Offensive Line Preview
We continue our West Virginia Mountaineers’ Spring coverage with our position preview series. After looking at quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers, we now provide our 2022 WVU Offensive Line Preview.
How Much Does Experience Matter on the Offensive Line?
Sometimes, we feel like a broken record. Talking up experience on the offensive line represents one such area of repetition. We say it often because it is true. However, the offensive line is the area on the field that relies most heavily on repetition and experience to produce ideal results.
Look at some of the best-performing teams last season. In fact, just look at the top five. They averaged 15 years of experience on the offensive line, and each team featured at least three upperclassmen. The youngest of the group (Alabama) had 12 years of experience, but they also recruit almost exclusively blue-chip players for their offensive line.
Returning snap counts on the offensive line represents a large factor in analytics-based Top 25 predictions, too. Google abounds with articles making relatively accurate predictions based on returning snap counts on both offensive and defensive lines. Experience matters here, a lot.
Mountaineers Haven’t Had Experience During the Brown Era
Experience on the offensive line during Head Coach Neal Brown‘s tenure has been hard to come by. Indeed, the lack of depth and experience at the offensive line was one of the first things Brown and Offensive Line Coach Matt Moore pointed out when they arrived in Morgantown. They were surprised at the lack of big-time bodies in that room. When we talk about how Dana Holgorsen left the cupboards bare after his departure, this is one area that we point to most readily.
Indeed, WVU played just one player with over 800 snaps that 2019 season (Colton McKivitz). Among the other four starters, they returned a total of just 579 snaps. In 2020, things were not much better, as McKivitz graduated, and the returning experience amounted to an average of about 500 per starter. On the offensive line, 500 snaps amount to about one-half a season of experience. This is less than ideal.
Last season looked more promising from a raw talent perspective. The snap count issue, however, remained. The starting line featured Brandon Yates (returning 617 snaps), Doug Nester (returning about 1,000 snaps), Zach Frazier (returning 555), and James Gmiter (returning 826 snaps). That still amounted to an average of 600 snaps per starter, as true freshman Wyatt Milum manned the right tackle slot.
Does Experience Turn Things Around for the Offensive Line?
A big part of our 2022 WVU offensive line preview, then, is looking at how, or whether, that has changed this season. For the first time in a long time, the Mountaineers presumptively will rely on the same starting five for the second-straight season. Chemistry, then, should not be an issue.
At left tackle, the Mountaineers return Yates, a redshirt sophomore with two years of starting experience. Yates played 1,436 snaps over the last two seasons. At left guard, West Virginia features Gmiter, a redshirt junior with three years of starting experience. He returns 1,662 snaps from the last three seasons. At the center position, WVU returns three-year starter Zach Frazier, a redshirt sophomore by eligibility. Frazier returns 1,389 career snaps.
On the right side, Moore will rely on two four-star in-state products. First, Nester returns (hopefully, without the club on his arm that slowed him down the first half of last season). A junior, Nester brings over 1,700 career snaps back to the line. Finally, the Mountaineers bring back Milum, who contributed 561 snaps last season.
In total, the starters return just shy of 6,750 snaps and 11 years of starting experience. On average, the returning starters bring 1,350 snaps of experience each. This is still not completely ideal, but it represents a two-fold improvement over last season. It gives the skill players and new quarterbacks a solid foundation with which to work.
Developing Depth Critical
Out of the starters, each player remains eligible for at least one more season (Gmiter and Nester each have one more year of eligibility remaining). As a result, West Virginia has the luxury of not necessarily needing to look toward a replacement for the 2023 season this year. That said, developing depth on the offensive line remains a critical task to avoid the same issues repeating themselves.
Beyond the starting five, just Jordan White returns more than 150 snaps. Ja’Quay Hubbard is next with just 48 snaps. Ideally, the Mountaineers build big enough leads to giving their depth some experience this season. Giving a handful of players 100 snaps each would start adding up in the next two seasons as West Virginia looks to the future. Talent is certainly there, as is the body count. Indeed, WVU brought in four more offensive linemen in their 2022 recruiting class.
Making the Case
We do not expect the WVU offensive line to be among the top in the country (yet). That said, we can fairly anticipate the unit finishing among the most productive in the Big 12. To us, this is the make-or-break year for Moore. If he cannot coach this talent and experience into a more finely-tuned and productive unit, then he just cannot do it here.
With another year under their belts, we tend to think the offensive line will be a surprising high spot to fans disenchanted with their 2021 performance. Given the number of close games the Mountaineers played last season, that extra strength in the trenches could drastically alter the team’s trajectory. If they fail to improve, however, the fans will be justifiably anxious to see some big changes for 2023.