By Brian McCracken
With basketball coming to an end, many fans are now turning their attention to spring football in the coming weeks and there are plenty of intriguing questions and storylines to keep an eye on.
Who will step up and replace the productivity of Shelton Gibson at the receiver position? How will the offense look under the direction of Jake Spavital? Can Will Grier live up the hype? How will Tony Gibson’s retooled defense look in 2017?
Those are all interesting subplots that we will cover in depth over the next several months, but the biggest questions of all for this team could very well be along the offensive line. For the first time in four years there will be a new center and a new offensive line coach leading the attack up front for the Mountaineers.
Joe Wickline, who worked primarily with tackles and tight ends a year ago, will take over full-time offensive line duties after the departure of Ron Crook, who took a job at Cincinnati.
While Wickline’s job title will change, there is little doubt about whether or not the veteran coach is capable of overseeing the Mountaineers’ front five. Wickline is in his fourth decade of coaching the position and has made stops at Baylor (1997-98), Middle Tennessee (1999-2001) Florida (2002-04), Oklahoma State (2005-13) and Texas (2014-15) before joining Holgorsen’s staff in 2016.
The bigger question is who will replace Tyler Orlosky at the center position. Orklosky, who will surely join an NFL roster in the coming weeks, was the unquestioned leader of WVU’s offense the past few seasons and was often responsible for identifying blitzes and getting the Mountaineers into the right sets. So who will be responsible for replacing the second-team A.P. All-American? The first three to get a shot will be Matt Jones, Tennessee transfer Ray Raulerson and juco product Kelby Wickline.
In the limited time we have observed in spring practice, Jones has been taking snaps with the first team and that is likely because there is a certain comfort level between Wickline and the redshirt sophomore.
“(Jones) has got a good build for it,” Wickline said of the 6-foot-3, 319-pound sophomore from Hubbard, Ohio. “He’s stout and strong. He knows the game, and he has a really good snap. Anytime you play center, whether it’s Orlosky or another guy from the past, it’s all about making calls and getting into a rhythm with a quarterback and identifying fronts. It’s a process so it’s not going to come overnight but I thought Matt did a nice job (last season) and he’s getting better right now as we speak.”
However spring depth charts are just that – spring football depth charts. Meaning things can and will change a lot before the Mountaineers begin their season in September. Raulerson is a real threat to take over the position, as he saw action in five games at Tennessee in 2014 before transferring to WVU last fall.
“Ray has a good build,” noted Wickline, who is a 1983 graduate of the University of Florida, where he lettered for three years as an offensive lineman. “He’s an older guy, and I think that counts for a lot. He’s a guy that’s going to compete for the job and he can also play some guard.”
Raulerson could potentially challenge for a starting guard spot as well, but would have an uphill battle beating not only incumbent starter Kyle Bosch, but also Grant Lingafelter, a fifth-year senior who has played a lot of football for the Mountaineers.
Wickline’s son, Kelby, is possibly the most versatile of the group and will rep all the o-line spots this spring, as the Mountaineers try to find a home for the Jones County (Miss.) Community College product.
“We had a mid-year signee in Kelby, who I think is a three-dimensional guy,” said Joe. “He can play tackle, he can play guard and he can play center. His flexibility is what makes him extremely important, because we’re trying to locate a good fit at center.”
So far in camp the starting line has been as follows: Colton McKivitz (right tackle), Lingafelter (right guard), Jones (center), Bosch (left guard) and Josh Sills (left tackle), although you can almost certainly expect to see Yodny Cajuste take over the left tackle spot when he completely recovers from his ACL tear. Either way, the battle for the right guard and center positions will likely bleed into fall camp, but Wickline hopes someone steps up and makes it an easy decision for him.
“The guys who have played before will always kind of start, and we’ll bring the other guys around,” explained Wickline. “But that’s what spring is. Spring is about competing at every position. We’ll put a certain arrangement out there, but that won’t really stay the same very often if it’s going right. If someone (in the position room) isn’t happy, then they’re going to change it and that’s what we need. We need it to change based on effort, production and getting their guys blocked. We need it to change. This is the time of year to compete.”