MORGANTOWN, W.Va – Schematically the Neal Brown era has brought many changes to the Mountaineer football program, both big and small.
One of those areas of renewed emphasis is at tight end, where Brown is putting his scholarship money where his mouth is.
West Virginia currently has five scholarship tight ends in sophomores Mike O’Laughlin and T.J. Banks, redshirt freshman Charles Finley and true freshmen Treylan Davis and Victor Wikstrom. It’s the most scholarship tight ends WVU has had on its roster at one time in over 20 years, and it’s a sign of the direction Brown is taking with the Mountaineer offense.
“We’ve got five scholarship guys there at that spot, and I think that’s what you need to be able to play,” explained West Virginia’s third-year head coach said of the tight end position. “We’re playing with 11 personnel (one back and one tight end) most of the time, and we’d like to get into some 12 (one back and two tight ends) too, because I think it would give us some advantages as well.”
Don Nehlen (1980-2000) was a big proponent of multi-dimensional tight ends with future pros like Mark Raugh, Lovett Purnell and Anthony Becht, who could both block and catch.
For most of the next two decades after Nehlen’s retirement, though, WVU didn’t use tight ends a great deal, and when it did, they were primarily just blockers.
Dana Holgorsen (2011-18) began to rediscover the tight end in the final season of his coaching reign at West Virginia, mainly to take advantage of the many skills of Trevon Wesco.
The Musselman (W.Va.) High grad became the first WVU tight end since Becht in 1999 to catch more than 25 passes in a season. Wesco, who had 26 catches for 366 yards for the Mountaineers in 2018, also followed Becht’s path to the New York Jets, where Trevon was a fourth-round draft choice in 2019. Becht was a first-round pick in 2000.
Holgrosen also recruited a pair of big high school receivers in 2018 with the expectation of turning them into tight ends – O’Laughlin and Banks – and Brown is continuing to add scholarships to that position, signing Finley in 2020 and then Davis and Wikstrom in 2021.
A native of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, O’Laughlin has added more than 50 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame since he arrived at West Virginia in 2018, and now checks in at 257 pounds.
He proved to be nice dual threat tight end last year. He missed the opener but then started the other nine games in the 2020 campaign, catching 15 passes for 137 yards, including his career-first TD in WVU’s Liberty Bowl victory over Army. He had seven games with two or more receptions.
Brown thinks O’Laughlin is just scratching the surface of his ultimate potential.
“O’Laughlin is progressing. I think the next year is going to be a critical year for him,” WVU coach noted. “I think he’s ready to take the next step. We need him to. He showed signs in the passing game, and he showed signs in the blocking game last year. He had a good offseason.”
A 6-foot-5, 240-pound native of Duquesne, Pennsylvania, Banks saw plenty of playing time backing up O’Laughlin last year. He’s had four catches for 41 yards with a TD on the season, and WVU’s coaches would like to see even more from him in the future.
“T.J. Banks has been a positive through our practices so far this spring,” explained Brown. “He’s got to continue to show that growth, but he’s been a positive.”
After O’Laughlin and Banks, West Virginia’s tight end position is very young. Finley (6-4, 210 lbs., RFr.) played in two games last year as a first-year freshman, while Davis (6-3, 246 lbs., Fr.) and Wikstrom (6-4, 250 lbs., Fr.) each enrolled at WVU this past January. The Mountaineers have a walk-on at tight end as well in Trace Weitzel (6-1, 238 lbs., RFr.), who is a native of Massillon, Ohio.
“Charles Finley has not practiced yet (this spring), because he’s out. It’s nothing major, but he has a back issue,” noted Brown.
“Treylan Davis is what we thought he’d be when we recruited him. He’s a guy who can put his hand down or can play in the backfield. He’s physical and can create some movement at the point of attack. He’s a tough, physical kid.”
Finley is from Newark, New Jersey, and Davis is a native of Jackson, Ohio, but Wikstrom comes to WVU by way of Uppsala, Sweden, so he is very raw to American football in comparison to the others at the position. Despite that inexperience, with size, speed (4.45) and athleticism, he’s an intriguing prospect.
“Victor is extremely athletic,” stated Brown. “He’s still learning the game. Obviously a lot has changed for him in the last few months, but he’s really talented.”
While West Virginia is stockpiling tight ends, it’s not putting the same scholarship allotment into the fullback position. WVU doesn’t list a fullback on its roster right now, though Weitzel, a walk-on, is probably more fullback than tight end.
That doesn’t mean the Mountaineers won’t use a lead-blocking fullback at times. It’s just that a tight end will slide into the backfield when a fullback is called for.
“We try to put investment into the tight end position,” explained Brown. “Your tight ends usually have length, which makes them more of a threat in the passing game. If we happen to get a fullback-type body, especially through our walk-on program, we’ll utilize them, which we did at Troy, but right now we’re looking to our tight ends to give us what the fullbacks have done in the past.”