Next Steps: WVU’s Mike O’Laughlin Continuing Growth In Tight End Role
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Mike O’Laughlin knew it was off even as it unfolded.
Set up for a pass on West Virginia’s second possession against Oklahoma, the redshirt freshman tight end was concentrating so much on the throw that his route skewed off-course. That turned what could have been a significant gain into a short one of just two yards.
“I was kind of far away from the line. I turned for the ball and drifted backwards, so I kind of set myself back three yards,” said O’Laughlin as he recalled the play. “I saw a little bit of green grass that I would have hit if I would have stayed on my path.”
The mistake, definitely a small one in the overall scheme of the game, illustrates just how much goes into making a play successful, average or a failure. In this case, it was just a matter of a couple of steps off the line of the intended pass pattern.
“If you think abut how much goes into a successful play – the snap, the blocking, the quarterback has to make his reads, the receivers – one little step or intricacy can throw off the entire play,” O’Laughlin said. “It’s something that was pointed out in film, and something that I practice so I can do better the next time.”
Past the immediate implications, the sequence also serves as illustration of the continued learning process that O’Laughlin, a redshirt freshman who missed all of 2018 with a knee injury, is working through at what amounts to a new position. Recruited as a tall slot receiver, O’Laughlin has added some 50 pounds since arriving at WVU, and is now learning the ins and outs of a more traditional tight end, albeit one that he hopes will be employed in a manner the modern game has evolved to.
O’Laughlin spent the spring and much of the early fall in the first stages of that evolution.
“Last time we talked it was more just getting on the field and getting a feel. Now it’s getting playing time,” he said of the first half of the 2019 season, in which he has caught five passes for 22 yards. “You can slow down and see things open up a little more, so you can craft your own game. Once you get comfortable with it, you can make it your own. I think that is the next step.”
O’Laughlin has also been learning how to play with his bigger body – one that he ruefully admits don’t fit into much of the wardrobe he brought with him from his home in Glen Ellyn, Ill., when he enrolled at West Virginia in the summer of 2018. That has involved, in the phrase of head coach Neal Brown, playing like he’s 250 pounds instead of 190.
“A lot of it is learning. I feel like I have done a better job realizing I’m 250, but there are still moments where I am trying to get rid of that,” the young tight end admitted candidly. “If you are hesitant, it’s not going to work out in your favor. Playing football, you have to know what you want to do, and it has to be full speed.”
O’Laughlin has used his additional size and strength to make an impact in the blocking game. Lining up as a traditional tight end, often flanked by teammate Jovani Haskins, he has helped West Virginia’s jet sweeps gain yardage. WVU hit two such plays out of that alignment for 27 yards on their first two snaps against the Sooners.
“I’m more inside the line, and those plays can generate good movement, and should give us three or four yards guaranteed,” O’Laughlin said of those looks, which are scored as passes but serve as defacto running plays. “Being put in that spot, I never really did that before. We’re doing it more now. It’s different, but it’s just like a regular cut-off block if I’m on the ball at tight end, but there are a few things you have to recognize inside the box.”
From that positions, O’Laughlin could block defenders close to the line, or get downfield, depending on the defensive alignment.
“The hardest thing about blocking in space is that the guys are really fast. They are smaller and quicker. That is something that we emphasize in practice. Coach (Travis) Trickett does a great job with that. We drill it, and try to break down early so we can react. That takes a lot of practice and a lot of reps. You can’t practice it against a dummy all the time. It’s reactive – you have to get a feel for it.”
It’s all part of O’Laughlin’s learning curve, one that he hopes will eventually arrive at a point where he can contribute more in the passing game. Noting that it’s “a matter of trust” to prove that he can catch the ball and execute when called upon, he sees a time when he can add that productivity, along with increased blocking skills, to become a multi-faceted weapon the Mountaineer offense.