WVU Football Questions For 2018: Offensive Line
Question 5 – Offensive line – For the most part, West Virginia’s offensive front of 2017 did a pretty good job in terms of pass protection. It allowed just 19 sacks on the year, which was the second fewest in the Big 12, trailing only TCU’s 18.
But WVU’s rushing attack had a rollercoaster of a season, and the Mountaineer offensive line has to absorb its share of blame for that inefficiency. This group needs to get better in 2018, but the hope is that with four of five starters returning, experience will lead to improvement.
At tackle, senior-to-be Yodny Cajuste and junior-to-be Colton McKivitz have played in a ton of games in their respective careers. McKivitz has started 23 games over the past two seasons, and Cajuste has started 19 of the 20 games in which he’s been healthy over the last three years. Injuries have been Cajuste’s biggest problem, as he’s missed 19 games over a three-year span because of various aliments, including a strained hamstring that kept him out of action in last month’s bowl game.
Both WVU tackles are seen to have NFL potential, so they give the Mountaineers strength on the edge.
But West Virginia struggled at times with its interior linemen, and its depth across the board was very thin.
Two first-year starters from 2017 do return at center and guard respectively. Josh Sills, who started nine games at guard this past season as a redshirt freshman, will again be joined inside by Matt Jones, who not only started every game at center this past year but rarely got snap off. WVU’s backup center, Ray Raulerson, only saw action in two games all year, as Jones, who was a sophomore, went wire-to-wire in the other 11.
With all that game experience under their belts, Sills and Jones need take a step forward in terms of performance. Both struggled at times this past year, as young linemen often will, but youth won’t be an excuse next year.
Kyle Bosch, who started 11 games at left guard this past season until a knee injury knocked him out of the lineup, has seen his college eligibility expire, as has his backup, Grant Lingafelter.
Thus the first order of business for Joe Wickline in his third year working with WVU’s offensive line is to find a new starter at the guard position.
Isaiah Hardy, a juco transfer in his first season at the D-I level, saw some spot duty at guard this past season, but he was underwhelming when given the opportunity with the offense. At 6-foot-7, 340 pounds, Hardy has great size, but he didn’t get enrolled at WVU until after preseason camp had concluded, so he was behind the learning curve from the start. The Mountaineers had originally hoped to redshirt the Laurel Springs, N.J., native, but their lack of depth up front eventually required them to change that plan and use him in game action.
Hardy will be a senior this coming season and will have the most game experience (12, though most of that came as a member of West Virginia’s field goal/PAT unit), but he figures to be challenged for that open starting job by a number of youngsters.
Chase Behrndt, Jacob Buccigrossi and Alec Shriner are the most likely to compete with Hardy. All are versatile, as Behrndt and Shriner began their careers at WVU in the defensive line, while Buccigrossi also can play center. But other than Behrndt, who saw mop-up duty in two games this year, none saw action in 2017.
Tyler Thurmond, who redshirted as a true freshman this past year, could play guard or tackle. And Kelby Wickline, who was WVU’s primary backup behind both Cajuste and McKivitz at tackle this past season as he started the bowl game in place of Yodny and saw action in all 13 contests to come extent, also could potentially slide down to guard as well.
Obviously the key is to get the best five on the field, and if that means Kelby moves guard, so be it.
But even after the Mountaineers find their fifth starter for their offensive line, they still desperately need to improve their depth. That situation bit them this past year, as they really only played seven and thus ran into significant problems in the bowl game when two of the starters were out with injuries.
Unless WVU uses one of its final scholarships on a grad transfer offensive linemen, the odds are that all the starts and most of the playing time in 2018 will go to the returnees. West Virginia did sign three high school offensive line prospects in the early National Letter of Intent period, but the odds of a true freshmen being physically and mentally capable of handling the load of a major college offensive linemen are slim. It’s even a tough transition for a first-year junior college transfer.
So other than a grad transfer, and at this point we don’t know of one interested, Joe Wickline is going to have to work with the group on hand. There is plenty of returning experience, but they’ve not only got to improve their consistency level, they also must develop depth.