WVU Offensive Line Outlook: Improvement Critical
Through the offseason, spring practice, the summer and on into preseason camp, no unit on the 2020 Mountaineer football team needs to improve more than its offensive line.
The struggles last year with that group were large, and the departures heading into 2020 are significant.
WVU head coach Neal Brown is the first to admit that his offensive line simply must be better this coming season if his offense as a whole is going show any improvement.
Returning – Donavan Beaver (RFr.), Chase Behrndt (Sr.), Michael Brown (Sr.), Tyler Connolly (RFr.), Zach Davis (Sr.), Noah Drummond (Soph.), James Gmiter (Soph.), John Hughes (Jr.), Nick Malone (RFr.), Briason Mays (Soph.), Parker Moorer (RFr.), Blaine Scott (Soph.), Junior Uzebu (Soph.), Brandon Yates (RFr.) (Sr.)
Departed – Daniel Buchanan (Jr.), Colton McKivitiz (Sr.), Josh Sills (Jr.), Adam Stilley (Soph.), Tyler Thurmond (Jr.), Kelby Wickline (Sr.)
Recently enrolled newcomers – none
Expected to enroll this summer – Zach Frazier (Fr.), Chris Mayo (Fr.), Tairiq Stewart (Jr.), Jordan White (Sr.)
The graduation of WVU’s two starting offensive tackles in Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline makes those positions the main focus of the Mountaineers’ offensive rebuilding effort. Add to that the transfer of former all-Big 12 guard Josh Sills, who is now at Oklahoma State, and West Virginia has some huge holes to fill in its offensive line.
The replacement work starts at tackle. Between them, McKivitz, who was the Big 12 co-offensive lineman of the year in 2019, and Wickline played in 87 career games. The pair listed behind them on last season’s depth chart – John Hughes (6-5, 298 lbs., Jr.) and Junior Uzebu (6-5, 305 lbs., Soph.) – combine for just 13 games of action at West Virginia, all coming in 2019.
Rated as one of the nation’s top 50 offensive tackles coming out of Alpharetta (Ga.) High School a couple years ago, Uzebu has spent his two seasons at WVU mainly concentrating on getting bigger and stronger. Backing up McKivitz may have provided great visual experience, but it didn’t lead to a whole lot of opportunities for game action. The business major saw a handful of snaps at the end of losses to Iowa State and Oklahoma, but that was it. Still, he’s got two years of college practice under his belt, and he’ll likely get the first chance to step in at left tackle replacing McKivitz.
Hughes would seem to be the likely heir apparent at right tackle, taking over for Wickline. A native of Carrollton, Texas, Hughes was lightly recruited coming out of Creekview High School, and instead of accepting a non-Power 5 offer, decided to go the junior college route instead. His gamble paid off because after one season at Navarro (Texas) College, he gained the attention of WVU and others, who saw a big, athletic lineman who had three seasons of eligibility remaining and four years to use them. Though a redshirt was an option last year, Hughes quickly worked his way into West Virginia’s o-line rotation, even earning a start against N.C. State. Though considered a natural tackle, most of Hughes’ game work last season came at guard because that’s where the Mountaineers had the greatest needs. Though he could stay inside, the odds are that he’ll move out to tackle and will get a chance this spring to get a jump on a starting job, likely at Wickline’s old spot.
Certainly Uzebu and Hughes will have competition for the starting tackle roles. Parker Moorer (6-3, 300 lbs., RFr.) and Brandon Yates (6-4, 285 lbs., RFr.) each garnered a great deal of praise from WVU’s offensive line coach Matt Moore last fall. It was hinted that either could see game action – particularly Moorer, since he enrolled at West Virginia in June, while Yates didn’t arrive until August – though in the end both had to be content with only practice reps. Each figures to be a major factor in the battle for playing time in the season to come. Yates is expected to be exclusively a tackle, while Moorer could wind up at either tackle or guard.
Blaine Scott (6-3, 321 lbs., Soph.), Donavan Beaver (6-6, 313 lbs., RFr.) and Zach Davis (6-2, 308 lbs., Sr.) also will work this spring to make an impression at either guard or tackle.
A pair of young walk-ons deserves watching as well. Tyler Connolly (6-4, 341 lbs., RFr.) is a big lineman from Marysville, Ohio, who has worked at tackle but could also play guard. Nick Malone (6-6, 280 lbs., RFr.) was a very good multi-sport athlete at Morgantown High, who spurned other offers to stay home and play for the Mountaineers. A year getting bigger and stronger will put Malone in a position where he could potentially battle for a spot in the two-deep this spring.
While West Virginia has to find new starters at the two tackle spots, it does return a great deal of experience to the guard and center positions, though admittedly that group has to make significant strides after considerable struggles throughout 2019.
Certainly this interior trio would have been helped if Sills (6-6, 326 lbs.) had returned to WVU for his senior year, but the Sarahsville, Ohio, native decided to spend his remaining college eligibility at Oklahoma State. After starting a total of 22 games as redshirt freshman and sophomore for the Mountaineers, earning all-Big 12 second-team honors in 2018, Sills saw action in just two games last fall. A lingering shoulder injury ultimately required surgery and shut down his playing status for the rest of the season. Now he’ll pick things back up, though in Stillwater.
Since Sills played only a couple games last year, West Virginia’s interior offensive line was already used to working without him.
James Gmiter (6-3, 300 lbs., Soph.) and Mike Brown (6-3, 345 lbs., Sr.) started 10 and six games respectively at the guard positions. A native of Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, who began his college career on the defensive line, Gmiter moved to offensive line in the spring of 2019 and wound up starting games at both left and right guard in the fall. Brown, a native of Compton, California, did not play organized football through his high school years because of medical issues. After graduating from Paramount High, though, he was eventually given a clean bill of health and decided to try football for the first time at Eastern Arizona College. He worked his way into a Power 5 scholarship and then ultimately a starting job. Now the big lineman will look to put all the pieces together as he heads into his final collegiate season.
Chase Behrndt (6-4, 305 lbs., Sr.) and Briason Mays (6-3, 300 lbs., Soph.) split starting duties at center in 2019, though Behrndt also saw action at guard. A native of Bolivar, Tennessee, Mays took over as WVU’s starting center three games into the 2019 season and stayed there for the next seven contests. Intelligent and normally technically solid, Mays admittedly needs to improve his strength and athleticism to better battle the imposing nose tackles that populate so many Big 12 rosters.
Behrndt saw four starts at center and six at right guard during the 2019 season. A shoulder injury caused the Wildwood, Missouri, native to miss a couple of games midway through the year, but he fought through pain to start at center the last three games. He underwent surgery in the offseason to repair the shoulder problem, so his status for spring practice is questionable, though it’s expected he’ll be 100 percent by the time fall rolls around. If healthy, he and Mays will likely battle for the starting center job, though Behrndt has obviously proven he can be an option at guard as well.
Young linemen like Parker Moorer, Blaine Scott and Donavan Beaver will also likely get looks this spring guard, so there are some options beyond just the last year’s mainstays.
In the summer, West Virginia will get an influx of additional line candidates as well.
Tairiq Stewart (6-5, 325 lbs., Jr.) is a junior college product from ASA College in Brooklyn, and he’s expected to get a chance to help immediately, most likely at tackle.
Incoming high schoolers Zach Frazier (6-3, 296 lbs.), Chris Mayo (6-6, 310 lbs.) and Jordan White (6-3, 300 lbs.) all appear to be promising prospects, but very rarely does a true freshman o-lineman at WVU avoid a redshirt – only two at West Virginia in the last 40 years – so the odds are those three young linemen will concentrate on development more than game action. Frazier could potentially be the rare exception. If the Mountaineers need help at center, Frazier would appear to have the physical and mental skills to make the leap, though in the long term, it would be best for all three true freshmen to redshirt.