Neal Brown is nearing the start of his second season as West Virginia’s head coach.
Even under normal circumstances, trying to coax improvement from a Mountaineer football team that was 5-7 last year would be challenging enough, but add in the trials and tribulations that come with attempting to play football games in the midst of a global pandemic, and Brown certainly has his work cut out for him this fall.
In this, the first of a series articles, we’re going to take a look at WVU’s biggest questions heading into the 2020 season with the best-case and worst case-scenarios for each.
Today we start off with West Virginia’s offensive line.
Is the offensive line improved? There’s no doubt that the biggest issue on last year’s Mountaineer football team was its inability to establish a consistent ground game. Much of the blame for that was laid on the shoulders of the offensive line. Admittedly others shared in the cause for those struggles, but the offensive line admittedly played a major part in those problems.
Having averaged a program-worst 73.2 rushing yards per game in 2019, WVU simply must improve its ability to run the football this season if it wants to see its offense get better as a whole. That improvement starts up front.
Best-case scenario – West Virginia’s likely first-team trio of interior offensive linemen – James Gmiter and Mike Brown at the guards and Chase Behrndt at center – had three starts between them heading into the 2019 campaign – all those from Behrndt the season before. Now that group has 29 career starts between them. That’s a huge difference, and should turn a weak spot from last year into a solid one in 2020.
Finding two new starting tackles won’t be easy, in particular replacing Big 12 co-offensive lineman of the year Colton McKivitz at left tackle. Former junior college transfer John Hughes now has a year in the program and seems capable of handling the right tackle job, although center Briason Mays has been moved outside for part of the fall to provide competition, and perhaps challenge for the starting job. On the left side, sophomore Junior Uzebu and redshirt freshman Brandon Yates are battling for the spot, according to Brown. Also in the picture for a backup role is redshirt freshman Parker Moorer.
In the second year under the guidance of o-line coach Matt Moore, the hope is that unit definitely has improved from last year.
Past history shows Moore has made marked improvements in his offensive lines from year one to year two. When Brown took over as the head coach at Troy in 2015, Moore joined him on that staff as TU’s offensive line coach. The first season the Trojans managed just 119.1 rushing yards per game but that number jumped to 169.2 ypg in 2016, and then tallied 149.0 ypg in 2017 and 174.1 ypg in 2018.
If West Virginia’s offensive line can lead the way for the Mountaineer rushing attack to achieve similar progress, than brighter days are definitely ahead.
Worst-case scenario – The concern is that from an offensive line that was often downright bad last year, it has now lost by far its best individual player in Colton McKivitz, who was the fifth-round draft pick of the San Francisco 49ers this past spring.
Even with McKivitz, WVU struggled mightily to run the football – it had just two games where it rushed for more than 97 yards in 2019. Can it perform better in the ground game without him? If not, the offense will again have a major handicap as it attempts to keep pace in a league that saw seven of its teams average more than 30 points per game last year.
The one thing West Virginia’s o-line did well last year was pass protect, allowing just 1.64 sacks per game, which was the third-best mark in the Big 12. Will that one strength remain, even with an inexperienced left tackle set to replace McKivitz on the blind side?
The hope is always that players are like fine wine and get better with age, but there’s no guarantee that last year’s interior offensive line will be better this time around just because it is a year older. And now WVU has inexperienced tackles working with that interior trio.
If the rushing attack is no better than 2019 and the pass protection is actually worse than last year, the Mountaineers are going to be in for a long, long season.