A pair of offensive linemen completed their eligibility in 2015, as Marquis Lucas and Stone Underwood played their final games for the Mountaineers. Lucas bounced between guard and tackle, and to both sides of the line, during his career, but in the end wound up with 30 starts, including 26 during his final two seasons. He developed into a solid player, but was not a dominator on the edge, and had a bit of a false start as a sophomore when he was a starter heading into the year, only to lose that job and see his time diminish. Still, he was a dependable performer who answered the call each week, and who leaves a gap that must be filled.
Underwood was never able to break into the starting lineup, but he did appear in 20 games for WVU, and provided respectable backup support at center and guard. A junior college transfer, he didn’t make an impact until his final season, but he also leaves a hole. That one is of less concern, both due to his backup stature and the fact that West Virginia returns more proven players on the interior line than on the outside.
On the whole, it wouldn’t be fair to say that West Virginia lost all-conference level players on the line, but Lucas and Underwood weren’t bad players either. Still, WVU has to get more from the replacements, including better pass protection, if it wants to move up in the Big 12 standings.
The sheer numbers of offensive linemen carried on the roster usually means that there will be a number of redshirt freshmen to watch, and that’s the case this spring with a quartet of players looking to make their first push for playing time. There are a number of upperclassmen in front of them, but there is also enough playing time available that a precocious showing could catapult one into some playing time, just as Yodny Cajuste did a year ago.
Up first, but in no particular order, Colton McKivitz (6-7, 295 lbs.) has the wingspan and athleticism to play tackle. He’s one of several Mountaineers who also stood out on the basketball court – showing that he at least has the mobility to protect the edge. Jah'Shaun Seider (6-3, 285 lbs.), the younger brother of WVU running backs coach Ja'Juan, is likely targeted for an inside spot. He has worked on snapping the ball, and if that progresses, could make him a swing player who could compete at either guard or center in the future.
Rob Dowdy, who was the subject of an intensive recruiting battle between WVU and Pitt, among others, is another rangy lineman who carries a lot of weight (6-4, 290 lbs.), and figures to get a look on the outside, while Matt Jones, the biggest of the four at six feet, three inches and 315 pounds,, might be the most physically ready to compete.
Of this group, it’s unlikely that all four will see playing time this year. This spring is a competition to see which one or two rise, and perhaps shows the ability to earn a backup spot. It’s not mandatory that any of the four do, but a nice surge by someone would make things a bit easier for offensive line coach Ron Crook.
Junior college players will always get the first look, so Craig Smith, who was recruited specifically to help bolster the tackle spot, will be under the spotlight when he arrives on campus. Unfortunately, that did not occur in January, so it will be at least May before he can get to WVU and being working with the team. As noted, tackle is the thin spot up front, so if he can get past all the hurdles that newcomers face, he could be a contender. As we often caution, though, immediate success stories involving junior college players are much more rare than those who take a year to get into the swing of things.
Of the remaining three, Jake Buccigrossi has the advantage of that extra semester, but he is also coming off shoulder surgery, so it’s unlikely that he will be able to ride that to a lead over the other contenders. Chase Behrndt has a wrestling background that all line coaches love, and Josh Sills is a massive tackle with more athleticism than the average trench recruit, but as they won’t practice with the coaching staff until the fall, it’s far more likely we will see them next year than this. That doesn’t mean there isn’t talent in this group – in fact, it might be very good – but the impact is far more likely to be felt in 2018 than 2016.
HOW IT ALL FITS
The interior of the line might not be totally set, but the contenders are well-identified. Tyler Orlosky is entrenched at the center spot, with Adam Pankey and Kyle Bosch returning at the guard spots. It’s unlikely that Orlosky will get unseated, but he needs a backup. Tony Matteo, a center in high school, could provide that, while also battling Bosch or Pankey for one of the guard positions. That still leaves at least one, and maybe two, backup positions inside.
Redshirt sophomore Amanii Brown held one of those roles last year, but he totaled just five dozen snaps on the year, so his spot is by no means secured. Grant Lingafelter, who played at both tackle and guard a year ago, will be in the mix, as will those inside candidates mentioned in the redshirt freshman group. Further back, Dontae Angus must show more consistency in order to become a contender.
On the outside, there are several options, but a lot of questions. Marcell Lazard appeared to grab hold of the right tackle position for his own midway through last year. The phrase “the light came on for him” is a perfect description for Lazard, and now he needs to make it burn brighter to become a linchpin on the edge. He, along with whoever wins the job on the opposite side, must improve WVU’s pass protection, and it will have to do so without Cody Clay, who often chipped in while lining up as a tight end or an H-Back.
Opposite Lazard, Cajuste will get that first shot, but there are questions there as well. He blazed into the spotlight early in the season, only to drop back after suffering a knee injury midway through the season. A broken hand also limited him in his comeback attempt, but he did play in the Cactus Bowl win, and if he can continue on his upward arc WVU might have two of the more athletic tackles it has sported in a while.
That’s two big “ifs”, and they are compounded by the questions behind them. Senior Sylvester Townes, a junior college transfer, hasn’t made the hoped-for push for playing time, and the fact that Cajuste and Lazard blew by him raises an eyebrow. If he takes that as motivation, he could be a backup, but there’s nothing to base such an evaluation on yet. Lingafelter will be a swing option, but after that it’s down to the juco newcomer and redshirt freshmen. Smith, once he arrives, will get a crash course in everything to see if he can contribute.
The way in which this plays out will have a big effect on West Virginia’s offensive scheme in 2016. If WVU can find at least three, and hopefully four, productive tackles, the Mountaineers will have the chance to rebuild their passing game. However, if pressure off the edge continues to be a problem, WVU may have to ride its interior running game even more – and as we’ll see in future looks, there’s no guarantee that phase of the game will approach last year’s performance level.
Played for coach Boyd Mannes at Lafayette High … was a guard, tackle, defensive tackle and long snapper … two-time All-State Class 6A First-Team by Missouri Media in a state WVU doesn’t recruit much … two-time All-State Class 6A First-Team by Missouri Football Coaches’ Association … an all-state honorable mention selection as a sophomore … as a senior, lead Lafayette to a 7-4 record and the third round of the state playoffs … as a junior, helped Lafayette to a 6-6 record and the third round of the state playoffs … ranked as the No. 45 offensive guard nationally and No. 2 offensive guard in Missouri by Scout … three-star recruit by Scout … two-time All-American heavyweight wrestler, including advancing to the state championship round as a junior … Scout’s recruiting reported that Behrndt is “another nasty player on the interior of the line. He’s an all-state wrestler, a finalist in his junior year, so he also understands the need for leverage.” … very sound, technical player that loves the physicality of the trenches … an intense player that fires off the ball with a lot of aggression … has intensity, power and strength and quickness off the ball … needs to improve pass protection … boosted his recruiting when he performed well at camps … plays with good control, solid footwork and a nice center of gravity … was aggressive in all the one-on-one drills, including point of contact and stopping defenders off the edge... “The most exciting thing about the recruiting process is just seeing that I am good enough,” Behrndt said. “It is truly an amazing feeling to know that I am not just wanted by one school, but by a good amount of schools. It just shows that people believe in me and that’s got to be one of the most incredible feelings in the world, that not many people get to experience.” … plays low, which helps with his balance and coordination when taking on defenders … uses many of the skills he has learned as a standout wrestler to help stymie his opponents … appears to have the fundamentals and techniques to become just as good on the field as he is on the mat … is a two-time All-American wrestler … “I like the competition. I love to see how my wrestling season and working hard this offseason have set me up,” he told Scout. “I talked to a lot of really big schools, but West Virginia was showing the highest interest out of all of them.” … was the 19th commit in the class … verballed in late August … “Beyond blessed to announce my commitment,” he wrote on a social media account. “I will be playing next year at West Virginia University.” … last name is pronounced like parent but with a b … also offered by Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Kansas, Pitt, San Diego State and Syracuse.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Chase Behrndt – “Like most freshmen linemen, I hope we don’t need Chase for a couple years. But he’s big and strong and a good athlete. He’s got a promising future.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Chase Behrndt – “Chase Berhrndt is a big, tough offensive lineman. A wrestler, grappler, dirty, grimy, just what you want in an interior offensive lineman. He could be either a center or guard. Hopefully he gets a couple of years to develop, and then he can turn into a starter for us.”
WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook on Chase Behrndt – “Extremely competitive. He understands leverage and balance. Wrestling has helped him immensely there. He is a very mentally tough guy who is physical and will battle out there. He’s a guy who has done other things than football, and that has helped him.”
Graduated high school early and enrolled at WVU for the start of the spring semester on Jan. 11, 2016 … Three-year starter for coach Pat Carey at North Hills High … Played one game in 2015 before suffering a season-ending injury … Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Preseason Fabulous 22 (2015) … WPIAL All-Northern Eight Conference first team (2014) … rated a three-star prospect by Scout.com, which also listed him as the No. 3 guard in Pennsylvania, No. 7 guard regionally and No. 54 guard … also offered by Arizona, Northwestern and Virginia, among others … actually grew up a professional football fan, and didn’t watch much college … “There were so many things in favor of WVU,” Buccigrossi said. “The fan base is great, and the coaching staff is really good. It’s close to home, and it has everything I want.” … primarily a run blocker in his high school’s ground-based attack … confident that his pass protection skills will be ready for the challenge of college … “Our coaches have us do a lot of work on pass protection, and they emphasize technique, our footwork, all of that,” Buccigrossi said. “I am very comfortable with what I can do there, and I think my mobility helps me there a lot. Run blocking is more smash-mouth and pass blocking is a little more laid back, but overall there’s not that big of a difference.” … likely to face a position transition at the collegiate level … after playing offensive tackle for the majority of his career, he’ll probably move inside for West Virginia to an offensive guard spot … citing his technique basics and aggressive nature, Bucccigrossi thinks there will be a great deal of carryover from his normal tackle assignments … “When I was down at West Virginia talking to the strength coaches, they said one of their big goals was to keep my mobility and quickness while adding to my body mass,” he said. “They told me that my mobility is very important, and that I will be able to preserve that.” … was WVU’s first offensive line commit for the class of 2016 … BlueGoldNews.com scouting report noted that Buccigrossi certainly has the frame and the bulk upon which to build. He played on both offense and defense in high school, which gives him a working knowledge of how defensive linemen might attack him, and has allowed him to refine his technique … Buccigrossi shows good reach on the line, and is able to get out to wide rushers and either reroute them upfield, or, as often as not, blow them completely out of the play. He moves down the line well when pulling, and on contact delivers a good punch that allows him to keep opponents off balance. He’s at his best in the run game, where he often ties into opponents and completely obliterates them from the play … can tend to stand up to early after the snap, which would cause him to lose leverage at times. However, when he does stay low, he shows the ability to win the position battle and get underneath his opponent, which suggests that it’s just a matter of forming good habits in order to stay down. He does that in his defensive line highlights, and there’s no apparent stiffness in his lower body that would prevent him from keeping good pad level … getting a lineman with excellent run blocking aggressiveness is also important for the Mountaineers, who have had trouble in recent seasons in moving the pile on short yardage situations.”
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Jacob Buccigrossi – “He enrolled last month, and we like him a lot. He’s been limited so far, because he’s still recovering from shoulder surgery. I’m anxious to see what he can do once he gets healthy.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Jacob Buccigrossi – “Jacob is a very smart kid who was an early enrollee. It’s unfortunate he got hurt his senior season in high school, because he had to miss that season. But he had a really good junior year. He’s another one of those young o-linemen who needs to develop, but he’s a very, very intelligent kid. Once he gets over this shoulder deal, we’ll be able to see what we’ve really got with him.”
WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook on Jacob Buccigrossi – “His best attribute is that he is going to get much stronger. He is going to be a very intelligent guy who understands how to bend and get underneath people and play with great pad level. His intelligence is going to serve him well in making calls and communicating, running the ship for us.”
Two-year starter for coach Jeff Twiddy at Meadowbrook High … helped team to a 9-2 record in 2015 and a berth in the state playoffs … paved the way for the offense to average 36.3 points per game, 222.3 passing yards per game, 160.9 rushing yards per game and 27 rushing touchdowns in 2015 … also handled placekicking and punting duties for Meadowbrook, averaging 41.9 yards per punt … connected on 2-of-2 field goal attempts with a long of 43 yards and had 18 touchbacks on kickoffs … set the season extra point record with 27 and also the career mark with 69 made … was a straight-on kicker … will not kick at West Virginia, as he’ll concentrate on offensive line … great work ethic and drive as a lineman … named to the AP All-Ohio Division IV first team (2015) and an All-Ohio Division IV Honorable Mention (2014) winner … selected to play in the North-South All-Star Game (2016) … two-time AP All-East Division IV District first team (2014-15) … East Central Ohio League Gray Division Offensive Lineman of the Year (2015) … two-time All-East Central Ohio League Gray Division first team (2014-15) … East Central Ohio League Gray Division Defensive Lineman of the Year (2014) … Scout.com three-star player and the No. 4 guard in Ohio, No. 18 guard regionally and No. 72 guard nationally … was the second offensive lineman to commit to the class … committed to West Virginia in June … earned offensive lineman MVP award at WVU’s camp … recruited by line coach by Ron Crook … “I got my offer from Coach Crook,” Sills said. “He’s been my main recruiting coach along with Coach (Bruce) Tall who came to my school a few times and got my transcripts. Coach Crook told me he was going to offer me two weeks ago and when I messaged him that I was coming to camp, he said he wanted to wait to offer me when I came down.” … line coach won over Sills during camp making his quick decision an easy one … “West Virginia has top notch facilities and Coach Crook is a straight forward guy,” Sills said. “He’s like, this is how it is, this is what I want and this is what I expect. I like that kind of coach and when we were on the field we just hit it off. So that was the finishing touch and when I knew I wanted to be there.” … Sills went quickly from total unknown to a much sought after prospect … “This is a big relief off my shoulders,” Sills said. “It’s been a roller coaster ride going from people not knowing who I was to just one camp and people putting my name out there and finding out who I was. It was just mind boggling.”... good punch on initial contact … delivers strong blows when coming off the ball … routinely knocks his foes off balance, and at times completely off their feet … often overwhelms opposing pass rushers, and keeps them from getting much backfield penetration … doesn’t jump off the screen in terms of athleticism … does get down the line well when pulling for blocks on running plays … is relentless in terms of getting finishing blocks and completing plays … the sort of grinder that gets the most out of his ability, and doesn’t quit playing until the echo of the whistle … Sills’ school had just 204 male students last year, so that raises a bit of concern about competition levels … has the size and mindset to become a very good Big 12 lineman, but his progression against better competition will be an item to watch over his first couple of years at WVU … a “poster child” for a WVU offensive lineman - not the most highly rated or athletic guy on the block, but the sort of player that typically develops over time and becomes a rock for an offensive line … brings to mind fellow Ohio native and former Mountaineer lineman Ryan Stanchek, who built on his naturally aggressive approach to the game to become an anchor along the line … Sills said his parents are sold on his future in Morgantown … “Mom and dad both really like it there and really like Coach Crook,” he said. “They told me it’s not just about facilities but about where I wanted to be and where I would be happy. They felt West Virginia was the right fit, as they knew I really liked Coach Crook. So they are very happy for me.” … also offered by Cincinnati and Michigan, among others … his family has been lifelong Ohio State fans, and the Buckeyes were very interested as well, but in the end, Josh said the coaches and atmosphere at WVU fit him best.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Josh Sills – “Josh is a big kid who is really athletic for his size. Like all young linemen, he needs to live in the weight room. If he puts in the work, he’s got a very promising future ahead of him.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Josh Sills – “Josh is a huge offensive lineman who comes from the same part of Ohio as Colton McKivitz. He’s a really big, athletic, raw talent. I’m really excited about Josh. I think he’s a guy who could just skyrocket once he gets into college and gets with our coaches. He also did the placekicking and punting for his high school team. If you’re 6-foot-6, 315 pounds and can make a 40-yard field goal and average 42 yards per punt, that tells you a little bit about his athleticism. You can’t be a stiff-hipped, slow-footed guy and be able to do that.”
WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook on Josh Sills – “I’ve had a couple guys who looked like him physically, but he has a bigger upside. He’s a grinder who is still excited about getting better. Even after he committed to us, he had people trying to get in on him. There’s something to be said about people who want to be here, and he’s wanted to be here for a long time.”
Played for coach Danny Palmer at Tyler J.C. … named NJCAA All-American first team … helped lead Tyler to a 7-3 record, the semifinals of the conference tournament and a final ranking of No. 16 … member of the offensive line that blocked for Tyler to average 47.8 points per game, No. 5 nationally and 534.5 yards per game … selected All-Southwest Junior College Football All-Conference first team … earned All-Region XIV honors as a sophomore … played for coach Rob Baumgarn at Ridgewater (Minn.) College as a freshman … All-Minnesota College Athletic Conference All-Division first team … played for coach Willie Bueno at Royal Palm Beach High … earned all-county second-team honors as a senior … played in the Florida-Georgia All-Star Game … selected to play in the Palm Beach County Treasure Coast All-Star Game … played in Palm Beach All-Stars vs. Atlanta All-Starts … committed Jan. 31, just days before National Signing Day … he and the Mountaineer coaching staff have formed quite the relationship, despite the late attraction by the Mountaineers … West Virginia had zero contact with the junior college standout until they made an offer two weeks before signing day … “I’m looking forward to seeing their facilities and getting more in-depth academically with the advisers,” Smith said before his visit. “But most importantly I’m wanting to see if it’s somewhere I would be comfortable and feel at home.” … recruited by new West Virginia offensive coordinator Joe Wickline … “It went great,” Smith told BlueGoldNews.com after the in-home visit. … committed to USF before adding visits and apparently rethinking that pledge … great size and frame … will need technique work … has the wingspan coaches love … will be expected to contribute as soon as possible … also offered by Louisiana Tech, Louisiana-Lafayette, UAB, UCF and USF.
WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen on Craig Smith – “Craig Smith, the big kid, is an interesting story. He was a basketball guy. He was one of those 6-foot-6 basketball guys who are a dime a dozen. He gained some weight as a senior, and then he went to some junior college in Minnesota. He hated that, which was understandable. He played this past year at Tyler Junior College, which is really good football. He sat out a year, and then he played this past year at Tyler. He did a great job. He is coming into his own. He has been as big as 6-foot-6, 360-pounds. Right now, he is probably 6-foot-6, 310-pounds. He needs some weight room work, and we will get him caught up. Hopefully, he will get some stuff done at home, and then he will get a chance to compete in May, June and July. We need a tackle, and we have some options.”
WVU recruiting coordinator Ryan Dorchester on Craig Smith – “Craig Smith is a big offensive lineman who can play on the edge. We needed to infuse some bodies at tackle to help create some competition. He’s a guy Coach (Joe) Wickline went and found. He’s long, and once we get him here in the summer, we’ll see if he can work his way into the two-deep.”
WVU offensive line coach Ron Crook on Craig Smith – “With his size and having experience, we like those J.C. guys to come in and help right away. He’s a long athlete with good foot quickness, a guy who we think can do it athletically. It’ll be a case as to if he can learn the system and the calls. We will see where he fits. It’ll be based off where we come out of the spring, and where we need to put someone right away.”
Previously In The Series: