After two consecutive years of shuffling players between positions on its offensive line, West Virginia still has question marks as to just how good its performance will be up front, especially on the exterior. With a converted guard, a redshirt freshman, a spot player and a redshirt juco with no Division I experience manning the four tackle slots on the two-deep going into fall camp, it's fair to say that West Virginia's exterior line play holds one of the keys to offensive success.
The anchor of the group will be Marquis Lucas, who moved out from guard to tackle last year. Lucas was solid, playing almost every meaningful snap and helping the Mountaineers to almost 500 yards of total offense per game. Is he ready to be the linchpin, and the guy behind which the Mountaineers will run to get tough yards? Can he go one on one with the premier pass-rushers in the Big 12? The likeable Lucas discussed being up to that challenge during the spring, and he'll have to be a leader, because those behind him, and on the other side of the line, have little experience. His backup, redshirt sophomore Marcell Lazard, appears to have good potential, but he has yet to take a snap in college after redshirting in 2013.
Opposite Lucas, Yodny Cajuste was edging ahead during the spring, but a broken hand caused him to miss several practice sessions. That's experience the redshirt freshman needed, because he, like Lazard, has yet to be on the field for a game. Cajuste has shown some of the nastiness necessary to finish blocks and win brawls, but he will also have a learning curve if he's the starter come September. Cajuste's competition, Russell Haughton-James, was suspended in May after being arrested on burglary charges, and his status remains unchanged according to a WVU spokesman. If and when Haughton-James returns to full duty, he should be able to provide support, as he has played both guard and tackle during his Mountaineer career. The effects of his suspension, though, are yet to be seen, although they shouldn't be long-term.
A wild card in the equation is Sylvester Townes, a redshirt junior who sat out last year after playing two years of junior college football at Coahoma Community College. If he can maintain an improvement arc, Townes could help solidify the tackle position, even though he also lacks Division I experience.
Why is all of this important? A couple of reasons. First, West Virginia's tackles are often uncovered, meaning they have to protect the edge themselves on many passing plays. They aren't totally alone, of course, as WVU can line up tight ends or additional backs to help with pass protection, but at the snap they are the edge of the line more often than not. Yield too many quick moves, and sacks, or at least a lot of help from running backs, will be required to keep the quarterback upright and on his spot. Again, WVU's quick throwing pace helps, as the QB often is required to get rid of the ball before pass rushers arrive, but the tackles can't be revolving gates either.
Second, and perhaps even more important, WVU is expecting to rely on its ground game this year, and the downhill effect of that is pressure on the offensive line to make room for the collection of backs. Again, the Mountaineers were good running the ball last year, finishing 43rd in the country with 182 yards per game, but those numbers might have to improve this year to keep the West Virginia attack rolling. There's also the issue of red zone and short yardage conversions, which were a bit of a problem during some open practice sessions this spring. While that's an issue for the line as a whole, the tackles will certainly have to share the load, seal the edges and create space for those vital, crunching yards.
While injuries and other external factors (see Haughton-James) could have a big effect on line play this year, the initial focus will be on the play of those tackles early on. Can West Virginia be a dominant ground attack, even if its passing attack isn't as good as in the past? Can the line protect Skyler Howard and give him time to survey the field? The answers to those questions lie up front.