In our spring previews, we focused on the players. In this fall run-up series, we'll go with some different angles on how newcomers and coaches will fit into the picture with the veterans and players who were on campus for the spring semester, and what has to happen for each group to excel.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
Chase Behrndt and Josh Sills enrolled for the summer semester, but like most OLine additions they probably won't be in the hunt for any playing time. Still, getting them in and on campus is the first step to their development, where they join Jake Buccigrossi, who was in school for the spring but out of contact work while recovering from shoulder surgery. He is expected to be cleared for full activities during fall practice.
Although he won't be eligible to play until next year, the Mountaineers bolstered their offensive line of the future with the addition of Ray Raulerson, who transferred from Tennessee. The Plant, Fla, native had expressed interest in the Mountaineers before signing with the Volunteers out of high school in 2014. He redshirted that year and played in five games as a freshman in 2015, which leaves him two seasons of eligibility at WVU. Looking down that road, he'll compete to replace Tyler Orlosky at center, who graduates this year.
With several coaching changes in play, the interplay in this group might be the most interesting of all, and have the most impact on the players and the offense. The addition of Joe Wickline as Offensive Coordinator and Fullbacks/Tight Ends coach might not seem to portend big changes, but Wickline was very involved with the offensive line during the spring. He often worked with the tackles as well as the tight ends, and coordinated with offensive line assistant Ron Crook during practices. Just how will that interplay function?
On the surface, everything looked smooth. Crook was the consummate professional in discussing Wickline's addition, and deserves credit for doing so. In general, it has to be tough to have another person – in any job – come in and work on what is considered one's own turf, but Crook was nothing but positive and upbeat about the entire process. If he and Wickline continue to jell, the line, which is the best unit on the offense, could make further strides. Evidence of that was seen in pass protection during the spring, and while the defense had its days too, the line appeared to respond to the Wickline-Crook combination.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
This unit should be good. What can make it great? More consistent play on the outside, and the development of a little more depth.
Orlosky is the anchor around which to build at center, and with Kyle Bosch and Adam Pankey flanking him at the guard positions, the Mountaineers are very strong up the middle. Marcell Lazard really came into his own in the second half of 2015, and as long as Yodny Cajuste stays healthy, West Virginia could be as good with its first five as it has been in quite some time. That leaves depth, where the development of youngsters appears to be the best light at the end of that tunnel.
Although you can never discount the light going on for players late in the their careers, it appears as if the chances for Sylvester Townes to make a big impact at tackle are waning. In front of him, players such as Rob Dowdy and Colton McKivitz must show they are ready for backup roles, even though they are just entering their second year in the program. On the inside, Ja'HShaun Seider, Grant Lingafelter and Tony Matteo are the potential backups, and at least the latter pair has some game experience. Matt Jones is another in what appears to be a solid group of redshirt freshman who could compete.
To be a great line, one of two things has to happen. Either the first five stays injury free and performs ironman duty, or a couple of the backups improve to the point where they can play at nearly as high a level as the projected starters. Neither is a given, but the latter obviously gives the Mountaineers more wiggle room in developing a dominating offensive front.
Offensive line coaches always say the goal is to get to a true two-deep roster, but in reality, that rarely pans out. West Virginia fans love to hearken back to 1988 when a second offensive line rotated in every third or fourth series, but that's a rarity. The more realistic situation is the one that most every team finds itself in – five starters, with two or three reliable backups who can swing to different positions. Barring mass improvements across the board, or big moves from precocious redshirts, that's where WVU will find itself in 2016 as well. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The loss of two potential players will have to be overcome, as redshirt sophomore Amani Brown and junior college signee Craig Smith will not be the team. Brown left the program after spring practice, and Smith did not meet eligibility requirements. That's not a huge hit, but it does eliminate a pair of players that might have competed for backup spots. Still, in a group that includes 17 players available for duty this year, it's not something that will have a huge impact on the overall success of the unit this season.
There are two keys for this group to fulfill its promise, and both appear to be at least settled on a solid foundation. First, the coaching situation must meld, but as discussed earlier spring practices demonstrated a good relationship between Crook and Wickline. Progress was apparent in pass protection during the spring, and run blocking should be able to at least approach last year's level of effectiveness. Second, three players must separate themselves from the pack to put a firm grasp on backup roles. A muddled situation among the second group could drag down overall productivity a bit, but barring injury, this could be the best West Virginia offensive line of the Dana Holgorsen era.
How have things for the offensive line changed since the spring? Review our look at the group in the Spring Offensive Line Preview.