West Virginia fans (well, about 1,200 of them) have gotten their own first hand look at a spring football practice over the past couple of weeks. Naturally, their attention is drawn most heavily to the full-scale 11-on-11 work that approximates game action, but that's just part of the process in determining starters and backups. Other than in the passing game, the individual and small group work is probably most important in assistant coach Ron Crook's corner of the field, where the offensive line drills.
To be sure, Crook and the offensive coaches are paying attention to the results in 11-on-11. In that action, they are looking not only at individual technique, but also at how the five linemen function together as a unit. They watch it live, and review video afterward to isolate problems and correct errors. That's an important part of the spring process, but only a part of it.
The other, less noticed segment of practice, includes lighter action, but elements that are just as important. In individual sessions, each lineman works on different parts of a play, from alignment to initial steps through hand placement and the ending drive of the block. They'll also work in tandem at times, and will pit their skills against defensive linemen in a couple of one-on-one pass protection periods.
Here, while the results (keeping the rusher away from the QB) are important, there's also a great deal of attention paid to technique. How does the lineman get out of his stance? Are his steps in pass protection keeping him on balance and in position to counter the rusher? Is his hand placement effective? All of these, and many other bits of minutiae, go into determining who is making the most improvement and making a challenge toward winning playing time.
* * *
With that in place, which linemen are doing the best this spring?
The interior line appears to be reasonably set, with Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski at guards around Tyler Orlosky at center. There have been a few missed assignments on the inside at times, which have resulted in Tony Matteo and Stone Underwood seeing some time with the "first" group, but that happens during practice, and shouldn't be construed as a major problem -- yet. Underwood, along with Russell-Haughton James, were singled out recently by head coach Dana Holgorsen as having made improvements during spring and being in position for back-up roles, so if they continue on that are the inside three should be reasonably solid heading into fall practice.
Outside, at tackle, things are less certain, and less deep. Marquis Lucas, moved out from the guard position he played a year ago, and Adam Pankey, fully recovered from injury, have held down the starting slots, but have given up some pressures during open practices. Juco Sylvester Townes, who reported many pounds lighter than his 300+ pound marker in junior college, is making progress. Redshirt freshman Marcell Lazard os also a player to watch, although the New Jersey native might need another year of seasoning before making a big charge for playing time. And towering Mike Calicchio, playing with the second unit through much of the spring, could also develop into a backup role. WVU needs at least one of them to progress and be ready to play this fall in order to provide a swing backup at either tackle position.
While this appears to be the pecking order as of now, there's plenty of time for it to change. It wouldn't be a surprise to see a few others make moves up the depth chart, or perhaps to even see a starter change out between now and the start of the season. The goal, however, is to minimize or eliminate those changes once the season starts, and have the best five -- a group that is the best both individually and collectively -- on the field at the start.
* * *
As that individual work progresses, there's also the matter of building cohesion among the starters and key backups. Much of this is a matter of sheer repetition -- every snap that can be made gives the five linemen on the field the chance to learn a little more about each other. That's not just a matter of the starting five working together, though. The backups need to get reps with the starters, and work at different positions so they are ready to play when injury or some other form of attrition changes the lineup.
Open practices give fans the change to observe all these dynamics in play. The fast-paced nature of practice is difficult to keep up with at times, but by concentrating on one group during a few periods, observers can learn a bit more about the contestants for each position.