WVU Spring Football Outlook: Offensive Line

The move of Adam Pankey from left tackle to left guard was the buzz of pre-spring talk, but there are many more issues to analyze as the West Virginia offensive line tries to become a more effective unit in 2015.

CURRENT ROSTER

With 12 eligible scholarship players, one transfer still awaiting potential word and a pair of walk-ons, West Virginia has a full complement of linemen on hand for the spring. On the inside, Pankey, Tyler Orlosky and Tony Matteo appear to hold the prime tracks on first team spots, but backups, including senior Stone Underwood and redshirt sophomore Grant Lingafelter, could mount pushes for playing time. Tyler Tezeno, also a redshirt soph, is also primed to compete, giving WVU the potential for six players at the center and guard spots.

On the outside, redshirt freshman Yodny Cajuste and senior Russell Haughton-James are splitting time in a battle at left tackle, while Marquis Lucas and Marcell Lazard are running 1-2 on the right side through early practices. Juco Sylvester Townes is a potential backup on either side.

Redshirt freshman Amanii Brown and sophomore Brendan Willis are further down the depth chart, while Michigan transfer Kyle Bosch awaits word on potential eligibility issues for an extra year.

In all, the depth, in terms of quality numbers, is better than at any time during the Dana Holgorsen era, and it's time for that to pay off in terms of increased consistency and quality of play.


RETURNING PRODUCTIVITY

There is a solid base of returning experience along the line, but many of the names filling out the backup roles have seen limited action. Orlosky, Lucas and Pankey have all logged more than 1,000 snaps in their careers, but after that the on-field experience lessens dramatically. Haughton-James got time as both a line backup and as a third blocker at tight end, and Matteo played in five games a year ago, including a start in place of the injured Quinton Spain. Lingafelter and Underwood also got a smattering of experience in 2014.

While many of the backups don't have a great deal of on-field time, that doesn't mean they won't be ready to compete this spring and fall. The development of offensive linemen is different than most other positions, as it usually takes a couple of years of strength-building and technique work before being ready for on-field play. Matteo, Underwood and Lingafelter apparently made big strides in that direction near the end of the 2014 season, and if a couple more players can join them in that group, WVU might finally be ready to roll subs in and out a bit more liberally than they have done over the past few seasons.


CONCERNS AND QUESTIONS

There is a good bit of returning experience along the offensive line in terms of time in the program. With nine blockers entering at least their third year in the program, there shouldn't be much confusion when plays are called or assignments are made. While that's a critical first step in good line play, it's far from the only one. Execution of those assignments was not consistent enough a year ago, as WVU struggled at times to protect its passers or create room for running backs. The good news is that neither phase of play was overwhelmed in 2014. Mistakes, while critical, were usually limited to one small error that turned potential good gains into limited ones. Can those be cleaned up, which would lead to a more productive 2015?

A potential change in emphasis from throwing the ball to running it also puts pressure on the line. Can a group that is schooled to pass block, which is by its nature something of a passive act, be aggressive enough to excel at firing out and moving defenders to clear a path for the run game? Head coach Dana Holgorsen and offensive line coach Ron Crook have both emphasized that they want this group to be hard-nosed, but saying it and getting it are two different things. At times over the past few seasons, West Virginia has struggled to pick up short yardage conversions needed for first downs, and has also been up and down, as noted, in running game productivity. Will Pankey's move to the inside help here? Will Lucas take the next step to become a mover at tackle, and from the other contestants, will an opposing bookend be found that can pass and run protect equally well?

With Pankey's move, WVU will again have three different players manning starting offensive line spots than a year ago. Granted, Pankey's move back to guard doesn't land him in unfamiliar territory, but much OLine development is dependent on building cohesiveness along the front. How will Pankey reintegrate into his old spot? How quickly will the eventual winner at left tackle fuse with Pankey to form a solid duo? It's these questions that will ultimately have to be answered successfully if West Virginia is to field a more efficient line this fall.


SPRING GOALS

1) Identify a starting five. While the competition will continue, having a last a rough idea of starters is key to building familiarity along the front.

2) Get as many snaps as possible for the second team. If players such as Tezeno, Lazard and Townes are going to contribute, they have to continue to build their experience level. They must be productive when they get the chance to compete in 11-on-11 work, but can't ignore the development that comes from all-out effort and concentration during individual sessions. It's tough, sometimes boring and repetitive – but those are the drills that push some players to new heights while leaving others behind.

3) Improve run blocking. Yes, West Virginia averaged 4.2 yards per rush in 2014 – a number that is far from poor. However, the totals and averages from game to game varied wildly. Good to excellent efforts against the likes of Texas Tech, Texas and Texas A&M (hey, is that a theme?) were offset by stiflings at the hands of Maryland, Baylor and Oklahoma. If WVU wants to ride its run game while the many passing game questions are ironed out, it can't see yo-yo productivity from one week to the next.


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