Taking Stock: WVU Offensive Line
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – On the one hand, West Virginia’s offensive line made improvements this spring. Warming to the approach of new assistant coach (and co-offensive coordinator) Matt Moore, the Mountaineer offensive front did some personnel switching, saw some players make marked gains, and had some practices where it won battles and helped move the ball effectively.
Chase Behrndt, after an uneven sophomore season at guard and tackle, moved to center and became the No. 1 guy with competitor Jacob Buccigrossi out because of a shoulder injury. Colton McKivitz flipped from the right side to the left, and Michael Brown, who had nine snaps on plays from scrimmage last fall, became a starter at left guard. On the plus side, all of those players showed some improvement, with the inexperienced Brown receiving notice for his progress.
“Mike has probably progressed more than anybody on the offense,” Moore said earlier this spring. “He studies really hard, he’s up here twice a day. He’s constantly studying film, he’s constantly trying to make himself better. He’s moving really well. He’s doing a good job of taking care of his body. If he’ll continue to progress, I can actually see him staying in that position as the starting guard, if he’ll continue to progress.”
Linemate McKivitz backed up that notion.
“He’s been in the film room grinding,” said the senior tackle. “He’s in there watching and learning. Guys are learning from that and Mike is doing a great job of it.”
Given the losses from last year, which included two starters and two backups that saw at least a handful of snaps, there wasn’t any question that a rebuild for the 2019 front was in order. While that point has been made multiple times, it tends to get lost in the “Who’s playing quarterback?” and “Who will replace Gary Jennings and David Sills?” topics. At times, too, the improvement up front looked to be trending in a positive direction, which also can deflect attention from play in one of the more anonymous position groups.
Then came Saturday’s Gold-Blue game, and with it a decided downturn for Moore’s troops. Head coach Neal Brown admitted that the line play wasn’t what he was looking for, and Moore agreed.
“We have to get it right. We can’t allow run-throughs. We can’t allow negative plays. It’s like I told my group the other day, ‘If we can keep people from running through, our running backs are good enough where they are going to get yards. They are going to get what they need. We just have to do our job.’”
The only thing with that statement? It was made back on April 2.
That demonstrates, as much as anything, that the offensive line has been on more hills and valleys than a coaster enthusiast at Cedar Point. There’s more:
“Our performance on Saturday wasn’t what I wanted it to be,” said Brown. “We have been doing better than that in practice. We just made some mistakes that we have to clear up. We have to continue to work on it and get our technique better and our pad level. It’s not progressing the way I want it to right now.”
Again, that was Moore, but again, it wasn’t after the Gold-Blue Game. It was a couple of weeks prior. As Brown did after the spring game, it called back to previous sessions in which the line and the running game had performed better. That would seem to show that there is enough talent up front to get the job done – it’s just a matter of consistency.
Hampering the development up front have been a couple of injuries, which, combined with the position changes, have led to a fair number of assignment mistakes. Josh Sills missed a handful of days after a knee injury scare that fortunately turned out to be minor, and Kelby Wickline missed some time, including the spring game. With Buccigrossi out for the entire spring, there were mix-and-match elements for much of March and April that hurt. While developing depth is a good thing, WVU isn’t in the position where that is job one. Right now, it’s getting a first five that it can run out and be confident with week after week.
“These guys haven’t played a whole lot inside,” Moore said earlier. “Chase never played center before. There’s a lot of pressure on him. There is a lot of stuff that he has to recognize and make calls.”
McKivitz noted that backups played at some different positions during the spring game too.
“(Briason) Mays was playing right guard some and (Tyler) Thurmond right tackle and Chase is new to center, and I’m new to left, and these are Mike’s first real reps,” he said, basically rattling off a full-five offensive line of people at different positions.
Now add in the fact that the defensive line has transitioned to much more active tactics. There are different alignments up front, pre-snap shifting, and twists and loops that can put an offensive lineman’s head on a swivel. Learning those new assignments might also cause a defensive breakdown from time to time, but there’s more for the offensive line to watch.
“It’s just a lot different than what they have seen in the past at practice week after week,” Moore observed. “The front they ran last year was not as much movement and not as much technique.”
McKivitz, again, concurred.
“I think their advantage came from their movement,” he said of Jordan Lesley’s defensive front. “We were getting stuck on blocks and getting some negative runs. That’s one of their big keys. Coach Vic (Koenning, WVU’s defensive coordinator) has them moving left and right. No one moves as much as they do. TCU and Oklahoma State like to move a lot, and TCU runs some inside stunts, but this is kind of a whole new level the way Coach Vic runs things.”
Again, though, there’s a countering positive. Facing such a defense now could help WVU be more ready for the Horned Frogs and Cowboys when the show up on the schedule. Also, Moore and the offensive coaches have been through a similar situation before, and have a plan for improvement.
“We have all been in this situation before, at Troy, our first year there,” he recalled of getting an offensive line up to speed. “The growing pains early are tough, with all the moving they do, but we are going to continue to work on it and continue to try different things to get things moving in the direction we want it to go.”