Wickline Believes WVU’s Offensive Line Is Deeper This Year
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s offensive line did some things really well in 2017, but it also struggled in other areas.
The Mountaineers were second in the Big 12 in sacks allowed, giving up just 19, which was only one behind the leader, TCU. And since the Horned Frogs threw the ball 51 fewer times then did WVU, West Virginia actually was best in the league in sacks allowed per pass attempt.
WVU’s rushing numbers didn’t look bad as a whole, as it finished fifth in the Big 12 in rushing yards per game (150.3), but the Mountaineers’ ground attack was a rollercoaster throughout the season. It topped 200 rushing yards six times, led by a 288-yard effort at Kansas and a 251-yard one at Oklahoma. But it also was held below 145 rushing yards in the other seven games, including four in which it didn’t managed to top 65 yards.
West Virginia’s offensive line is seeking more consistency this season.
“You can definitely see the difference from last year to this year,” said WVU junior offensive tackle Colton McKivitz. “The offensive line has gotten way better since the spring. The running backs, we have a whole group that just brings everything to the table. Everybody has something they bring to the table; it just works for our offense.”
McKivitz is one of four returnees who started nine or more games last year. Colton started all 13 of West Virginia’s 2017 contests at right tackle, and Matt Jones did the same at center. Yodny Cajuste started the 12 regular season games at left tackle. A hamstring injury kept him out of the bowl game, though, and his starting spot was filled by Kelby Wickline, the son of WVU’s line coach and is now a junior. Josh Sills started nine games as a redshirt freshman last season, splitting his time between left and right guard. All five those linemen are back this year, as is guard Isaiah Hardy, who lettered last year though mainly for his special teams duty.
Sophomore Jacob Buccigrossi, who has missed the past two seasons because of injury, is finally healthy and pushing Jones for the starting center job this year. And juco transfer Joe Brown is locked in a battle with Hardy for the first-team right guard spot. Add in seemingly game-ready backups like Chase Behrndt, Tyler Thurmond and Michael Brown, and WVU appears to be deeper in the offensive line in comparison to last year, when it really only had seven who saw regular action.
Not every position battle for 2018 is settled yet, but West Virginia’s offensive line coach Joe Wickline is starting to narrow things down.
“I think that we’re getting closer,” said Wickline. “Any time you’ve had spring, had summer and had some time to evaluate, as a staff, you discuss where you’re at. Maybe it’s time to move a guy here and make sure that he’s a good fit there, and you look at things, get things on film. Then you get closer.
“But to be quite honest, I know that the one good point is that we have more depth than we’ve had, which has allowed guys to know that you better stay on your toes, you better make your game sharp, you better bring it every day,” continued Wickline. “Make no excuses, and just get it done and get better, because there’s someone right behind you. That’s good for the first team and good for the second team, because there’s always opportunity to win a job.”
Some coaches would like to zero in on a starting offensive line early and let that group work together for an extended period of time to get used to one another. Wickline doesn’t buy into that, though.
“I hear chemistry, I hear cohesion, and I think that’s overrated, in my opinion,” said WVU’s second-year offensive line coach. “I know from an outside standpoint, you want to know who’s lining up at right guard, and it’s uncomfortable when you don’t know who’s lining up at left tackle. But I’m not about being comfortable or convenient. My job is to get the best five on the field. Our job is to get the best five, then to get the next best five and then the next best five. Whatever that rotation and that chemistry is has nothing to do with somebody on the outside of us. All that matters is what’s best for our program.”
Wickline may not have a third set of offensive linemen he is confident could perform at a Big 12 level, but he believes he has a deeper group than last year.
Now is that total nine, 10 or 11?
It’s still a little early to determine that exact number.
“At this point, we have some young guys that aren’t ready yet. And at this particular point, we have some guys that have already proven that they can play,” Wickline said. “We have some guys that have played some, and we have some guys that are making a move to where they may be guys that are there. But I won’t really know where we’re at, in terms of numbers, until we actually put the ball down and scrimmage more, or get into a game or two. Then, we’ll see what happens.”