West Virginia’s biggest questions in terms of its offensive line depth chart primarily focus on the two tackle spots.
The graduations of Colton McKivitz, who was the Big 12’s co-offensive lineman of the year in 2019, and Kelby Wickline has taken both starting tackles from WVU’s lineup, and now a new pair must be found.
The interior of the o-line returns most of its components, so development at the tackle slots is the biggest key.
However it’s done, this group must get better if the Mountaineer offense is going to improve as a whole. While West Virginia’s offensive front was good in terms of pass protection last year, giving up just 21 sacks, which was the third fewest in the Big 12, it managed only 73.3 rushing yards per game, which was not only easily last in the league but also 128th out of 130 FBS programs nationally.
Getting better, especially with the departure of McKivitz to the NFL, won’t be easy. Here is how we anticipate this unit looking this coming season.
Anticipated starters – LT Junior Uzebu (Soph.), LG Michael Brown (Sr.), C Chase Behrndt (Sr.), RG James Gmiter (Soph.), RT John Hughes (Jr.)
Start with the good news, which is the experience West Virginia returns in the interior of its offensive line.
Michael Brown did not play football in high school because of a health concern, but he later received a doctor’s clearance to participate in the junior college ranks. He was incredibly raw when he arrived at WVU in 2018, but the 6-foot-3, 345-pound native of Compton, California, has progressed over the years. Brown became a starter last year, and now a senior, he’s again expected to hold down the left guard spot.
James Gmiter (6-3, 301 lbs.) spent his first fall at West Virginia practicing at defensive tackle, but he moved over to offensive guard in the spring of 2019, where the Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, native quickly found a home. He worked as a substitute in WVU’s first two games last season but then moved into the starting lineup and was there the rest of the way with six starts on the left side followed by four on the right. Now a redshirt sophomore, it’s hoped he’ll continue to provide the Mountaineers with a steadying force at right guard.
Chase Behrndt battled a shoulder injury much of his junior season, but the 6-foot-4, 315-pounder from Wildwood, Missouri, toughed it out, starting 10 of WVU’s 12 games in 2019. Some of those starts came at guard, but by the end of the season, Behrndt had settled in at center and that’s where he’s expected to continue to perform this coming year.
The lineup that was in place for West Virginia in the final three games of 2019, with Brown and Gmiter at guard and Behrndt at center, is likely the interior trio that will begin this coming season.
While WVU appears set with its interior three starters, its tackle situation is still a guess after the graduation losses of McKivitz and Wickline. John Hughes (6-5, 298 lbs., Jr.) and Junior Uzebu (6-6, 298 lbs., Soph.) will probably get the first chances at the two starting tackle spots, just because they’ve got slightly more experience than the other candidates.
Hughes came to West Virginia in the spring of 2019 after spending one year at Navarro (TX) College. Though considered more of a natural tackle, he was used at guard by the Mountaineers last season because of depth issues at that position. He even started against N.C. State at right guard and played in 11 games in all. Now the Carrollton, Texas, native is expected to move out to right tackle where he’s probably the first in line for a starting job.
Uzebu spent as his redshirt freshman year backing up McKivitz at left tackle, but being behind a second-team Walter Camp All-American doesn’t leave a lot of playing opportunities. A native of Atlanta, Uzebu saw action in just two contests in 2019, but the expectation is he’ll get considerably more snaps this coming season … likely even as a starter.
Likely top backups – LT Brandon Yates (RFr.), LG Blaine Scott (Soph.), C Briason Mays (Soph.), RG Donavan Beaver (RFr.), RT Parker Moorer (RFr.)
Hughes and Uzebu may have a slight lead at the starting tackle slots, but a pair of redshirt freshmen are right on their heals. Parker Moorer, a 6-foot-4, 303-pound native of Charlotte, and Brandon Yates, a 6-foot-4, 306-pounder who spent his high school years in Las Vegas, each will contend for starting jobs, and at the very least figure to be heavily used reserves. West Virginia didn’t have the luxury of depth at tackle last year to be able to rotate, but now with Moore and Yates to go along with Hughes and Uzuebu, the depth is better, though there is minimal game experience.
In terms of the interior line, Briason Mays doesn’t figure to concede a starting job, even though Brown, Behrndt and Gmiter were working there with the first team at the end of the ’19 season. The 6-foot-3, 308-pound Mays, who is a sophomore from Bolivar, Tennessee, can play either center or guard. He started seven games in the middle of the 2019 campaign at center but was supplanted in the last three by Behrndt. Though he’s not played guard in a game so far, Mays could step over a spot and play either guard if need be.
Blaine Scott (6-3, 318 lbs., Soph.) and Donavan Beaver (6-6, 308 lbs., RFr.) also will be in contention for the backup guard spots. Scott saw action in three games last year, while Beaver sat out and was redshirted as a true freshman.
Other key returnees – Tyler Connolly (RFr.), Zach Davis (Sr.), Noah Drummond (Soph.), Nick Malone (RFr.)
Now a fifth-year senior, Zach Davis (6-2, 308 lbs.) is an offensive guard WVU’s coaches have spoken highly of in the past, but the walk-on has never been able to break into the lineup for regular action. This will be his last opportunity for such a chance at West Virginia.
In addition, a trio of young walk-ons will try to add depth to West Virginia’s offensive line this year.
Noah Drummond (6-0, 285 lbs., Soph.) is a Bridgeport (W.Va.) High grad who is primarily a center, while Tyler Connolly (6-6, 344 lbs., RFr.) and Nick Malone (6-6, 282 lbs., RFr.) could play either guard or center.
Newcomers who could see game action this season – Zach Frazier (Fr.), Chris Mayo (Fr.), Tairiq Stewart (Jr.), Jordan White (Sr.)
Usually offensive line newcomers, either true freshmen and even more junior college transfers, come into WVU and immediately head to redshirt status.
In the last 40 years, only a handful of young offensive linemen have played right away, but because of both necessity as well as individual skill, this season could be an exception to that nearly automatic redshirt rule.
Tairiq Stewart, a 6-foot-5, 325-pound product of ASA (N.Y.) College, will almost certainly get a long look to see if he can help at tackle this season, though he does have a redshirt year available if the Mountaineer coaches decided to utilize that.
West Virginia has three other scholarship linemen entering as members of the class of 2020, and all three will be true freshmen. That trio – Zach Frazier (6-3, 296 lbs.), Chris Mayo (6-6, 310 lbs.) and Jordan White (6-3, 300 lbs.) – face an uphill battle if they wish to play this coming season, but those odds may not be as great as others faced in past seasons.
Mayo, who will likely play tackle, probably has a tougher road to immediate playing time just because of the depth WVU has at that position, albeit mostly of the inexperienced variety.
White, who figures to be a guard, is viewed as physically ready and very well could push those ahead of him.
Then there is Frazier, who has a combination of excellent physical and mental skills. The Fairmont, West Virginia, native is going to be a center at WVU, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him press for playing time this year. His biggest holdback is probably the fact that outside of practice he’s never played that center before, having been an offensive guard and defensive tackle in high school. If he can master the basics quickly, though, he could very well fight his way into the mix for playing time at center as a true freshmen. You’d have to go back decades and decades to find a true freshman at West Virginia who saw game action at center, but Frazier could break that barrier.
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