West Virginia Football’s Biggest Questions In 2019: No. 8 – Offensive Line
(Editor’s Note – In our series of stories over the next few weeks, we’re going to take a look at each of West Virginia’s top 10 question marks heading into the 2019 football season. After that, we’ll also look at what we consider to be the top 10 strengths of Neal Brown’s first Mountaineer squad.)
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8. Offensive line – Neal Brown’s first year as West Virginia’s head football coach features plenty of questions though also a few likely strengths.
How his offensive line performs as a unit could definitely accentuate the positives and help provide encouraging answers for the questions.
But that offensive line as a group enters the season as an unknown entity itself.
Certainly that five-man front has a couple strengths of its own. WVU tackle Colton McKivitz and guard Josh Sills are two of the best offensive linemen in the Big 12 this year, as they are rated first-team and second-team all-conference performers respectively by Athlon preseason football magazine.
A 6-foot-6, 312-pound fifth-year senior, McKivitz has started 35 games in his three seasons with the Mountaineers. He’s twice been voted an honorable mention all-Big 12 performer by the league’s coaches for his work on the field, and the wildlife and fisheries resources major has earned second-team Academic All-Big 12 notice three times for his work in the classroom. The Jacobsburg, Ohio, native considered declaring for the NFL after his junior season but decided to return for one more year where he hopes, among other things, to improve his draft stock from the projected fourth or fifth round range that he was pegged in following last season. McKivitz moved from right tackle to left tackle this spring to fill the shoes on that side left by Yodny Cajuste, who was a third-round draft pick of the New England Patriots.
With Cajuste departed, as have other 2018 O-line starters Matt Jones (center) and Isaiah Hardy (right guard), McKivitz and Sills (6-6, 328 lbs., Jr.) are the only two returning full-time starters up front. Like McKivitz, Sills has plenty of experience, having started 22 games over the past two years and having been involved in 1,516 offensive plays. The Sarahsville, Ohio, native, was voted second-team all-conference by the Big 12 coaches last year. He’s played both right and left guard in his two seasons with WVU’s varsity, as well as seeing some time at tackle, but West Virginia’s first-year offensive line coach Matt Moore would like Sills to settle in at right guard this season.
McKivitz and Sills are two strengths of the 2019 Mountaineers, but the offensive line is a question after that pair. The three other projected starters in left guard Michael Brown (6-3, 255 lbs., Jr.), center Chase Benrndt (6-4, 298 lbs., Jr.) and right tackle Kelby Wickline (6-4, 301 lbs., Sr.) don’t have a ton of experience between them, and behind that group, things get very young and very thin.
The son of former WVU coach Joe Wickline, Kelby did get three starts and other playing opportunity in place of Cajuste over the past two seasons. The Jones (Miss.) Junior College grad admittedly struggled in that role in each of the last two bowl games, though he did perform very well in helping the Mountaineers to a victory at Texas last fall. West Virginia will need him to find consistency this season.
Behrndt saw action in 11 games last year, including three starts, but that time came primarily at guard. Now he’s moving over to center, which was the position he was originally recruited to play but to this point has not. In a league filled with plenty of quality interior defensive linemen, WVU needs a solid center. Behrndt will get the first chance at that spot, but often-injured junior Jacob Buccigrossi (6-3, 307 lbs.) or redshirt junior Briason Mays (6-3, 302 lbs.) could be called up if Behrndt can’t do the job.
Michael Brown (6-3, 255 lbs., Jr.) is the least experienced of the projected starters in many ways. The Compton, California, native didn’t participate in any organized football until he reached Eastern Arizona College, where he developed into a starter in 2016 and an all-Western States Football League first-team performer in 2017. He played in four games for the Mountaineers last year, but still was able to redshirt. Now, after three years and having played in a life’s-total of 26 games, he’s likely a starter for a Power 5 program. It will be an amazing story, if it has a happy ending.
In terms of backups, there aren’t many who have played for West Virginia previously. Behind McKivitz and Wickline at the tackles are Tyler Thurmond (6-5, 296 lbs., Soph.) and Junior Uzebu (6-5, 308 lbs., RFr.). Thurmond played in a couple blowouts last year, while Uzebu has not yet seen college action. Newcomers Donavan Beaver (6-7, 310 lbs., Fr.) and John Hughes (6-4, 305 lbs., Soph.) also could work their way onto the depth chart at tackle, though each has a redshirt season available as well. Brandon Yates, another offensive lineman who signed with the Mountaineers as part of the class of 2019, is not yet enrolled at WVU and appears unlikely to gain entrance this year.
The depth at guard is similar to tackle. Behind Sills and Brown, are Buccigrossi and Mays, as well as Blaine Scott (6-4, 325 lbs., RFr.), James Gmiter (6-3, 302, RFr.) and Parker Moorer (6-3, 300 lbs., Fr.). Of those, only Buccigrossi has seen any game action, as the Pittsburgh native played in 10 games in a backup role last year.
Outside of McKivitz and Sills, the offensive line has plenty of questions, not only among its other starters but also in particular with its depth.
Of course, in college football, rarely does a team have veteran, battle-tested first- and second-string offensive lines, but WVU’s this year are certainly unknowns.
Previously In The Series