MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Other than opining on who should be the starting quarterback, West Virginia fans have probably made discussion of the use of tight ends one of the most frequent topics concerning the Mountaineer football team. Even through times when tight ends appeared to be going the way of the fullback, there always seemed to be a push from a group to get the spot more involved in the WVU offense, with some viewing it as a solution to various attack ills.
Even when the team was under the coaching reins of Rich Rodriguez and Dana Holgorsen, who viewed tight ends as anachronisms at best, suggestions continued to flow about adding more throws to some of those who most often toiled as additional blockers, if they saw the field at all.
When head coach Neal Brown came onto the scene, he set a goal of getting the position more involved in the passing game, but those efforts have been shorted by injuries and a couple of failures of athletic players who couldn’t master enough of the skills of the position, or muster the desire to work at the less glorified aspects of play there.
The injury bug has bitten Mike O’Laughlin the hardest. He was sidelined for his first year at WVU in 2018 while recovering from a knee injury, and played in just six games a year ago, with his last contest coming on Oct. 23 against TCU. He was eventually ruled out for the rest of the season, and also did not participate in spring practice this year as he continued to recover from a lower leg injury.
That in and out status put a huge crimp in West Virginia’s plans for the position, and it received other body blows when three different tight ends over the past four seasons left the program. That has left WVU’s production at the position mostly in the hands of O’Laughlin, who has managed 32 catches in his 27 games of action over three seasons.
Those numbers, though, are a far cry from some of the tight ends of yore. Mark Raugh, the favorite target of Oliver Luck, had 64 catches way back in 1981, and totaled 123 for his career. Lovett Purnell, an oft-overlooked part of the offense, had 79 catches in three seasons (1993-95), and NFLer Anthony Becht racked up 83 grabs from 1996-99. In the 2000s, though, production dropped like a rock with the advent of the spread and air raid attacks.
This year, another challenge faces West Virginia’s continued hopes to get the ball to the tight ends. In addition to O’Laughlin’s continued rehab battles, the Mountaineers now have a (sort of) new coach at the position in the form of Sean Reagan, who moved over from mentoring quarterbacks to make room for Graham Harrell.
In his college coaching career, Reagan has never coached tight ends, although he was an offensive coordinator for two high schools from 2004-07. He doesn’t think that the move will be a hindrance, and to be fair, he showed great energy in working with the tight ends on the field during this past spring’s practices while digging behind the scenes for more to help him develop their skills.
“It’s probably easier than the playing side of it,” he said of the challenge of moving to a new spot. “It hasn’t been that big of a change. I coached running backs before at Troy, and there are a lot of similarities there. I think once you have your coaching style, you just go with it. It has been a pretty easy transition.
“Over the years in the game, you gather a lot of information,” he continued. “On individual techniques, I visited with a couple of people to get some detailed things, and we’re open dialogue in our position meetings. I just want to help them get the job done to the best of their ability and the easiest way to do it. I just try to keep that simplicity in their minds.”
Reagan thus acknowledges there is more than one way for his players to be successful, and believes that he has enough talent to develop a strong position room. In addition to O’Laughlin, who had five catches against Texas Tech and four against TCU in October before being sidelined, he sees more in transfer Brian Polendey than just another blocker, as his career has shaped up to date.
“He has a lot of good football knowledge. He’s seen a lot of defensive fronts, and he understands them. He plays with good pad level, and has really good footwork,” Reagan enumerated. “He’s more of a ‘box’ player, and we are trying to improve him on the perimeter. He’s starting to understand secondary looks and running routes. He has done a really good job in the run game.
“He’s a detailed technician. He will help us this fall. When we get Mike ‘O’ back, we will have two very, very good tight ends.”
Polendey has improved his pass catching a great deal, zeroing in on fundamentals.
“For him, it’s all about hand placement and getting your hands ‘home’ before the ball arrives,” he said of the idea of getting them up in position to catch the ball as early as possible. “He is trying to work on using his hands more in receiving. He’s more confident today than he was over the winter. and I don’t think he’s had a drop (in the last 10 practices of the spring).”
Of course, highlighting that was a jinx, much like pointing out a long streak of made free throws for a basketball player. Polendey had a drop in the spring game, but that appeared to be little more than a minor blip. If he can continue on his improvement path, West Virginia might be able to get 30 or 40 catches out of the position this year, and make it a spot that opposing defenses have to account for.
“Tight ends do catch the ball in this offense,” Reagan said, nothing that there’s nothing about the design of Harrell’s system that would hold them back.