WVU Has Found Some New Options For Its Offensive Line
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–West Virginia offensive line coach Matt Moore stood on the stage in the Puskar Center this week fielding questions from the assembled media.
“Do you think you’ve found your center of the future?” came the query.
Moore just grinned and immediately knocked on the wooden podium in front of him.
“He had a good game,” Moore said of redshirt freshman Briason Mays, who got his first career start in the win over North Carolina State Saturday. “He didn’t always play with very good pad level, but he played with a lot of effort and a lot of energy.”
Mays had never even played in a college football game prior to Saturday, to say nothing of starting one.
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound redshirt freshman was often complimented by last year’s coaching staff, but never saw any game action in 2018 and was redshirted. This year, with a new staff, Mays’ development took a while, but after trying two different starting centers in the first two games of the season, Moore turned to the youngster from Bolivar, Tennessee.
“His snaps have gotten consistently better,” West Virginia’s offensive line coach said of his pupil’s improvement. “His snaps used to be a little of everywhere, but his snaps have improved. Then he is just understanding more now, playing with a certain base, keeping his hands inside and always straining. As a high school player, you don’t always have to do that, because you’re not always playing against talented opponents. But when you get to this level, you hear coaches always preaching about fundamentals, footwork, hand placement, and they don’t always listen to that until they realize they can’t just muscle guys around.
“Give him credit. There were times he was down, but he just kept working and never lost hope. Then when he got his opportunity, he definitely took advantage of it.”
For a center, especially one who has to deliver shotgun snaps 90 percent of the time, the first attribute must be an accurate snap. Then comes everything else.
“When we talk about snaps, we talk about a strike zone, just like a pitcher,” explained Moore. “You can’t throw balls. You need to throw a strike every time, because a quarterback has to catch it and get his eyes on his read right now. If he’s reaching up for snap, a lot of times it will slow down things, like your RPO game. If you are reaching up for the snap, you probably just have to hand it off, because you can’t read anything. That’s been a huge part of it – we have to throw strikes. Briason is a kid who is athletic enough that he should be good at it.”
Mays had shown great improvement in his snap accuracy in the weeks leading up to Saturday, but in warmups prior to the N.C. State game, the nerves were getting the better of him.
“In the pregame, he had about four bad snaps, and woooo, I was so nervous,” chuckled Moore in retrospect. “I just went up to him and told him to relax. I wasn’t real sure what was going to happen. During practice last week, I think he only had one bad snap, but then in pregame he had four go over the quarterback’s head with no pressure at all. But once the game started, he did a really good job.”
Mays wasn’t the only new face in West Virginia’s starting offensive line this past week. John Hughes, a junior college transfer, got his first career start, playing right guard. And James Gmiter, a 6-foot-3, 300-pound redshirt freshman, also got his first-ever start in the win over the Wolfpack, holding down the left guard spot.
A product of Bethel Park High School outside of Pittsburgh, where he played for former WVU graduate assistant coach Jeff Metheny, Gmiter spent last fall practicing at defensive tackle, but moved over to offensive line this past spring.
He saw a few snaps of action, mainly on special teams, in WVU’s first two games this season, but Saturday was by far his most extensive run, as he was in for every offensive play.
Gmiter’s transition from defensive line to offensive line is not an easy one, noted Moore.
“He’s really improved in terms of his body position,” explained West Virginia’s offensive line coach. “When you play d-line, you are running off the ball and your feet are narrow. You’re either filling a gap or chasing the ball. But offensive line is different in terms of fundamentals. Then he also has to learn the offense and who he is helping and who is working to. We still have a lot of strides to make with him. He’s a big, strong, physical kid who can run. We have to continue to work with him. He’s a young player, and I see him growing into that position. The thing I saw with him was he played hard. He made a lot of mistakes with his feet, but his eyes were in the right spot and he played hard.”
The performances by Mays, Hughes and Gmiter helped West Virginia’s offensive line overcome the absences of previous starters Josh Sills (shoulder injury) and Mike Brown (illness).
They led an offensive attack that totaled 445 yards against N.C. State after accumulating just 465 yards combined in the first two games.
“The two things we harped on all week is don’t let anyone out-effort you and do what you are coached to do,” said Moore. “If you do those things, good things will happen. That’s what they did, and it’s my job to continue to enforce that and make sure they understand we’re going to do things a certain way around here. That paid off for us Saturday, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
As for the future, the performance by West Virginia’s young offensive linemen gives the Mountaineers options for that group moving forward.
“We definitely have more confidence within that unit there,” said WVU head coach Neal Brown. “Mike should be available this week. Josh, we’re not sure yet, but we should know later in the week. If Mike is available, we’ll have seven to rotate. If not, we’ll go with what we have. And we’ll wait to hear on Josh.”
The odds are Mays, Hughes and Gmiter remain part of that offensive line mix in the weeks ahead.