In its previous incarnations as spread option and modified Air Raid attacks, the West Virginia offense had sporadic use for tight ends in the passing game, although there have been some blips when the position was more than just a cameo. In a number of seasons, though, the tight ends have been blockers 99% of the time, often morphing with fullbacks into a hybrid position that specialized in clearing paths for running backs in the ground game.
Over the last 15 seasons, West Virginia tight ends have produced just four years of cumulative double-digit catches.
Current WVU head coach Neal Brown wants to change that, although the degree to which it will occur depends upon several factors, including talent at the position and the extent to which the tight ends mesh with the rest of the offensive scheme. He does have two players who are ready to, and already have, made contributions to the Mountaineer attack, and another who caught a pass in his first collegiate game before suffering an injury, so at least those pieces are there.
Before diving into that story, though, a look back at WVU’s tight end history is in order. While the perceived lack of use of the position in the passing game is a common complaint among Mountaineer fans, it is instructive to note that it hasn’t been an absolute desert.
WVU Tight Ends Receptions 2005-19
While it is true that in two seasons (2006-07), the Mountaineers did not have a single tight end with a pass reception, it can also be seen from the accompanying table that players such as Tyler Urban (2008-11), Trevon Wesco (2016-18) and Jovani Haskins (2018-19) have had an impact in the Mountaineer passing game. However, as their numbers also show, it’s been a hit-or-miss proposition from year to year, as each of those players have had seasons with catches that can be numbered on one hand interspersed with those of more significant figures.
Still, it’s easy to look at the raw numbers and wish for more passes to, and more yards from, the position.
That’s Brown’s goal, and in 2020 his tight ends are off to a respectable start – one that could have been even better had disciplinary action not crimped the start of the season. In two games of action (both were suspended for the Eastern Kentucky opener), Mike O’Laughlin and T.J. Banks have made their marks. O’Laughlin has caught four passes for 26 yards, including a key fourth down catch in the first overtime against Baylor, and another grab to start WVU’s winning overtime possession in the second. Banks had a nice catch and finished a good run on a fourth-quarter catch for an 11-yard gain against the Bears.
Then add in true freshman Charles Finley, who caught a two-yard pass in his first-ever collegiate game. Finley was injured in that Eastern Kentucky game, and is still in a knee brace, so O’Laughlin and Banks are the players to watch as the rest of the season unfolds.
While those catch and yardage totals are still modest, they must also be looked at in terms of impact on the game. If those catches come in key situations and turn into first downs to extend drives, then they can’t be dismissed as minor parts of the offense. Right now, the tight ends are still being used as blockers a good deal, with the passes to them set up off by run fakes and off bootleg action, but the successful catches have come at important points. Hopefully, as they gain more experience and continue to show their dependability, some additional options can be added.
Doing so, however, can be a slow process. It takes practice time to add new wrinkles. You can bet the plays on which O’Laughlin made his overtime catches have been repped many times in practice. The idea of getting Banks down the seam is an enticing one, but that’s a different route and setup that demands practice time – and this is at a time when WVU is still a work in progress with its entire passing game.
The ability of other parts of the passing game can also keep a tight end from piling up big numbers – or assist it.
In wide receiver-rich seasons, a large number of targets to tight ends doesn’t make sense, while years when an offense is more conservative or limited can boost chances. Mark Raugh’s 64-catch season in 1981 – from the arm of Oliver Luck – was in part due to the lack of proven wide receiver targets (in addition to the more conservative passing game of the times), and his catch numbers fell off in 1982 as more downfield targets emerged.
This year, WVU has a large number of wide receivers who have gotten playing time, but production, again for a variety of reasons, has been uneven. Could the continued progress of tight ends help fill that gap?
The ability and a small sample of the performance is there for the Mountaineer tight ends, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to think the duo might combine for 20-25 catches this year, assuming defensive schemes allow and WVU’s pass game can continue to progress. WVU’s best tandem total over the last 15 years is that of Wesco and Haskins two seasons ago, when they combined for 42 catches and 514 yards, but O’Laughlin and Banks could surpass the total of every other season if they continue on the same arc.