West Virginia’s offensive line has been a focal point for much of this season, but unlike 2019, the returns have much more positive in 2020. The Mountaineers have produced 1,255 rushing yards through eight games this year (156.9 per outing), substantially eclipsing last year’s total (879) in just two-thirds of the number of contests. Pass protection, buoyed by an attack built around getting the ball out quickly, has also been good, helping record 2,286 air yards over the same span while yielding just 15 sacks.
Assistant head coach Matt Moore, who oversees line play, has been able to build a group that is anchored around the inside trio of Chase Behrndt, Mike Brown and Zach Frazier. Work with the tackles has been a tougher process.
“With John Hughes dinged up, we are not as deep as we want to be at tackle,” said Moore, who substituted for head coach Neal Brown on the Big 12’s weekly Monday teleconference. “Hopefully with this recruiting class we get deeper. Brandon Yates is coming along at left tackle. He is getting challenged every week, and has seen a lot of good defensive ends, starting with Kansas State a few weeks ago, and then Texas and TCU. He works hard on the field and in the film room, and he has a lot of athleticism and balance on the field.”
On the opposite side of the line, injuries have reared their heads. That makes this week’s open date even more welcome in the Puskar Center.
“At right tackle we are struggling with Hughes getting injured,” Moore admitted. “(Briason) Mays came on, but he has been battling a high ankle sprain and some [other injury problems]. So we had Parker Moorer in for the second half [against TCU], and it was nice to see him come along.”
Moorer has played on the line on special teams this year, but Saturday’s appearance against the Horned Frogs was the first extensive action of the redshirt freshman’s career.
“He has been improving tremendously through the season,” said Moore. “In our Monday Night Football, where we have about 25-30 plays for the younger guys, he has been getting better. I felt like he was ready to play. He played well and graded out really well (against TCU), and had a couple of knockdowns. He played with a lot of passion, and showed what he can be. I am excited about that, and seeing how he continues to improve.”
To help the tackles, Moore and the offensive staff have called on tight ends Mike O’Laughlin and T.J Banks. While much of the attention on that position is geared toward catching passes, Moore highlighted the work that has been done to help mesh them with the tackles in the run game.
“That position has really improved tremendously. Both O’Laughlin and Banks are considerably stronger, and Coach (Travis) Trickett has done a good job with those guys. They have to know all of the run and pass game concepts. We are spending a lot of time with the tackles and tight ends together to get the fits and angles that we want. It’s a huge part of our run game.”
Evidence of that has been seen as the season has progressed. WVU has incorporated its tight ends into its pre-snap shifts and motion more and more in recent weeks, with several aims in mind. One of those, as Moore described, is to help the tackles with blocking tasks against some of the standout defensive ends and edge rushers in the league. Setting up routes in the passing game is also a goal, making the versatility of the players at the position vital.
“We want to keep expanding that each week,” Moore added. “We’re trying to get them the ball, and get them down the field. They’ve been kind of the unsung heroes of our offense.”
Coming off a game in which WVU rushed for just 43 yards, Moore was happy with the bounce-back effort against TCU. The Mountaineers recorded 180 rushing yards against the Horned Frogs, and backstopped that with even stronger performances from its other two units.
“I felt like we played well on all three sides,” said Moore, who is in his 15th season as a collegiate coach. “We are continuing to play on a high level on defense, and the special teams played really well. Offensively and up front we didn’t play very well in the Texas game. Some of that goes to what Texas has up front, and we had a hard time moving them around. But we improved on the offensive line from a week ago.”
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Positioned as he is in his work with the offensive line, Moore also has a good perspective on the West Virginia defensive front, which goes up against his charges every day in practice. The Stills brothers and Jeffery Pooler are a handful and then some, and Moore also notes the raw physical skills of true freshman Akheem Mesidor have been impressive.
“He has really good pass rush skills. He’s good with his hands for a young player,” Moore said of the Ontario, Canada native, who leads the Mountaineers in sacks with five. “He has a great ‘get-off’ and body control, with great hips and flexibility, and you can see it out there when he gets into a situation where he can rush the passer. Getting him in a one-on-one and bringing some pressure without having to blitz, that’s a big help.”
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Brown was attending a funeral on Monday, which led to Moore’s appearance in his slot on the Big 12 call. West Virginia has an open date this week before hosting Oklahoma on Nov. 28.