WVU’s Young Offense Will Look To Improve In 2020
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – As the 2019 football season winds down for West Virginia, it’s hard not to look ahead to the 2020 campaign.
The Mountaineers (4-7) will graduate three senior full-time starters from this year’s offense – running back Kennedy McKoy and offensive tackles Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline – but a bulk of the unit is eligible to return next season, including 19 players who have started at least once and another 12 who have some game action under their belts.
“Most of our team is back for multiple years,” stated Neal Brown, who is wrapping up his first season as WVU’s head coach. “I think we need to continue to make steady improvement, but we have a lot of players returning.”
The only seniors who have touched the ball on offense for West Virginia this year are McKoy, who has 272 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 90 carries as well as 34 receptions for an additional 154 yards, and receiver George Campbell, who has 19 catches for 469 yards and a team-leading seven TDs.
Besides those two, all of WVU’s other skill players are eligible to return, including seven game-tested receivers, two quarterbacks, three tight ends and four running backs.
Certainly there are areas where the Mountaineers must make significant improvements between the end of the 2019 season and the start of the 2020 one. WVU is easily the worst rushing team in the Big 12 (72.1 yards per game), and it is also last in the league in scoring offense (20.6 points per game) and total offense (329.0 ypg), while checking in at sixth in passing offense (256.9 ypg).
West Virginia’s coaches admit that any offensive improvement must start with the offensive line.
“The first year at Troy, we really struggled up front,” recalled WVU’s offensive line coach Matt Moore, who also headed up that unit for Brown at Troy in 2015, when the Trojans stumbled to a 4-8 record under the new coaching staff. They improved to 10-3 the next year, though, and posted 11-2 and 10-3 marks after that.
“The second year I brought in one junior college guy in the summer, and it was a mixture of having that guy and also everyone else getting better in terms of the fundamentals and the way we coach them in the things we do,” noted Moore, who had worked with Brown for the past five seasons and also three years prior to that (2006 at Troy and 2010-11 at Texas Tech). “It’s definitely got to be a mixture (of new guys and improvement from the returnees). We’re losing two good tackles, and at the same time, we have some good young players coming back. We also have some good junior college players we’re on right now. We’re trying to bring in the right people to get things going.”
Replacing McKivitz and Wickline will be difficult, but the Mountaineers’ 2020 offensive line will benefit from the return of Josh Sills. The 6-foot-6, 326-pound fourth-year junior started a total of 22 games at guard as a redshirt freshman and sophomore, earning second-team all-Big 12 honors in 2018. But a shoulder injury and subsequent surgery knocked him out of the WVU lineup after the first two games this season.
“He’s chomping at the bit to get back,” Moore stated of the Sarahsville, Ohio, native. “He is at practice and at meetings. I’m excited about getting him back. He would have been a mainstay for us this year up front, somewhere; we had him at guard, and we had him at center. He would have helped us, especially a guy who has that many snaps and understands how to play the game and has that kind of strength and power. We’re looking forward to getting him back when he gets well. Hopefully we can have him for spring practice.”
A healthy Sills will join a group of WVU’s young linemen who got on-the-job training this season. Junior Chase Behrndt, who has been battling a shoulder injury the last half of the season, and redshirt freshman Briason Mays split starts at center, while Mike Brown and James Gmiter got most of the snaps at guard, though junior college transfer John Hughes had one start there as well. On top of that there are some promising young linemen waiting in the wings, like redshirt freshman Junior Uzebu and true freshmen Parker Moorer and Brandon Yates.
“We’ll look different next year,” said Moore of the line minus the two senior tackles, “but we’ll have a better understanding of what we need to do. I’ll have full offseason to get these guys headed in the direction we need them to go.
“As far as having the snaps they need to improve, they got some this year, but they’ll continue to get them in the future,” he continued. “I’m looking forward to what Gmiter does. He’s tremendously improved from where he was last spring, when he just moved over to o-line, to where he is now. Mike Brown has also made huge improvements. So, we do have improvements occurring, though they didn’t happen as fast as I wanted them to or everyone wanted them to. But we have made strides and made improvements.”
An offseason in the weight room will also be vital for the young linemen.
“Briason Mays, John Hughes and some of those guys need to have a great offseason from a strength standpoint,” said Moore. “I don’t think they understood where they were. But then you get out there and go against some of these Big 12 players who are really good, and all of the sudden you understand, ‘Hey, I’ve got to get stronger and more physical.’ A lot of those guys who played this year now understand the work that has to be done.
“It’s been a growing year and a learning year. It’s tough when you go against guys who are bigger than you and stronger than you,” stated Moore, who is a native of Canton, Georgia. “That’s where your technique has to come in. That’s been my experience with the young guys we’ve had in the past. As they mature and become bigger and stronger and are able to continue that technique they developed when they weren’t that strong, that’s when they become a really good player. A great example of that is Colton McKivitz. He didn’t have a lot of power when he was younger, so he had to rely on great technique. Now as he’s an older player who is stronger, he still is using that technique, and he’s one of the best tackles in league.”
McKivitz and his fellow seniors will take the field for WVU one last time on Friday, when they face TCU in Fort Worth (4:15 p.m. ET on ESPN).
As for the underclassmen, the process of improvement will continue immediately thereafter.