West Virginia’s offensive line is still a work in progress.
The Mountaineer front had huge issues in 2019, as its inability to open holes was a big part of the problem that limited WVU’s rushing attack to just 73.2 yards per game, ranking West Virginia among the worst in the FBS ranks in that category.
Improving in that area was a major focus of the offseason, and after three games, WVU definitely has made positive strides in terms of running the football.
Though the sample size is still relatively small, West Virginia is averaging 177.0 rushing yards per game, a mark that is third best in the Big 12 and 27th nationally. WVU only managed to top 100 yards on the ground in two of its 12 games last season – 173 vs. N.C. State and 195 vs. Kansas – and has already equaled that number this season, as it ran for 329 yards against Eastern Kentucky, 68 vs. Oklahoma State and 134 vs. Baylor.
“I do think we’re improved from last year,” stated WVU head coach Neal Brown.
Running back Leddie Brown, who led the Mountaineers in rushing last year but with a total of just 367 yards, already has 320 yards on the books in the first three games of 2020, as he had 123 vs. EKU, 104 vs. OSU and 93 vs. BU. Fellow junior Alec Sinkfield also is posting good numbers, as he’s averaging 62.3 yards per game.
West Virginia’s 134 rushing yards this past Saturday against Baylor may have paled in comparison to some of the numbers put up in the Pat White/Steve Slaton days but still, that’s the fourth best ground performance of the Neal Brown era.
And it came with an offensive line that had to undergo some last minute juggling.
“We were going into the game with a different look, but we had to switch that about 11:30 Friday morning,” explained WVU’s second-year head coach.
The Mountaineers’ plan heading into the Baylor game was to start true freshman Zach Frazier at center and move Chase Behrndt, who had started at center against Oklahoma State, out to tackle.
But that plan went awry when James Gmiter, who has been West Virginia’s starting left guard, tested positive for COVID-19 Friday morning.
That caused a late shuffle that moved Behrndt back to center and had Frazier take over at left guard.
“Chase actually didn’t practice any at center last week, but he went out and played well,” Brown said of the fifth-year senior’s performance against the Bears. “He also played well at Oklahoma State last week. He’s playing with better pad level. He’s strong. He’s doing a really good job with his communication. He’s as improved as anybody on our team.”
Frazier, who started the season opener against Eastern Kentucky at center when Behrndt was suspended, was solid in his new position against BU. He’s the first true freshman to start in the offensive line for the Mountaineers in over 40 years.
“Zach Frazier made his second start, and his first at left guard,” noted Brown. “He hadn’t played there a ton. He played there some against Oklahoma State, but not a lot. He had gotten most of his practice reps at center. He made some mistakes, but he’s physical, really good in the run game.
“There were some mistakes, switching off twists and recognizing blitzes. That worked against him because he didn’t have the practice reps, but I thought he did a really nice job.”
As for rest of the WVU offensive line against the Bears, redshirt freshman Brandon Yates got his second start of the season at left tackle after also working with the first unit in the season opener. Junior Uzebu started at that position against Oklahoma State, but the sophomore didn’t play against BU.
“Brandon Yates played his best game. He was really physical. I’m excited about what he’s done,” Brown said after the 27-21 overtime win against Baylor.
The right side remained the same against BU as it had been in the two previous games with senior Mike Brown starting at guard and junior John Hughes at tackle. Briason Mays rotated in at right tackle to spell Hughes, though the sophomore limped off with an ankle injury late in the contest.
“Mike Brown continues to play well. He played at high level again; that’s three games in a row,” said Brown. “He creates movement in the run game.
“At right tackle we played both John Hughes and Briason Mays, and we were better than we were the week prior,” observed WVU’s second-year head coach. “There is still some improvement that needs to be made there, but we were definitely better.”
While West Virginia’s offensive line is leading the way for an improved rushing attack, it has allowed more pressure on the quarterback so far in the early portion of this season than it did last year.
While WVU had rushing issues in 2019, its line was generally good in terms of pass protection, allowing just 1.75 sacks per game, which was the third best figure in the Big 12. After three games in 2020, the Mountaineers are giving up 2.33 sacks per game, which included five by Oklahoma State and two by Baylor.
“We had some mix-ups on Saturday, but our protection was a bigger issue against Oklahoma State than against Baylor,” explained Brown.
“It’s always a mix of problems. We mis-IDed a couple things in the Baylor game. We mis-IDed a corner blitz on third-and-four that should have worked out better because we practiced against that a lot.
“Also the quarterback held on to the ball too long a couple times, and we missed a couple of edge blitzes,” the coach noted. “It’s a combination of things.”
West Virginia’s line is experienced inside, as Frazier is the only new piece there. Gmiter, Behrndt and Brown all were starters last year as well this one. The tackles are new, though, as Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline were the starters in 2019 but have since graduated. McKivitz is now playing in the NFL for the San Francisco 49ers.
The loss of that kind of talent and experience is factoring into WVU’s vulnerability against pass rushes.
“The biggest difference from a year ago is we had two fifth-year guys playing tackle,” said Brown. “We had a lot of experience on the edge, and that’s kind of where we’ve been hurt now in terms of pass protection.”
The Mountaineers have used different starting offensive lines in each of their first three games. That shuffling was caused by a combination of performance, suspension and illness.
Going forward, WVU would like to get to a consistent lineup. But as West Virginia found out the day before the Baylor game, in today’s coronavirus world, forced changes are only one positive test away.
If all remain healthy, it appears as if Gmiter, Frazier and Brown will be inside, with Yates, Hughes and Mays at the tackles. While Behrndt could be a swing lineman capable of playing any of the five positions, WVU may be narrowing his focus some as well.
“He was working both at guard and tackle,” said Brown of Behrndt’s practice reps heading into the Baylor game. “We’re not going to do that moving forward, though. We’re going to get him locked in inside. He’s going to be an interior player only.”
Overall, it’s an offensive line that has shown progress from last year, particularly in opening up running lanes, but it’s still far from a finished product.