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. In this edition, the fullbacks and tight ends are examined.
NEWCOMERS SINCE SPRING
Trevon Wesco, who did not play in his second year of attendance at Lackawanna College, joined the team over the summer and has gotten solid reviews for his early participation and work. He has the ability to get downfield, and is faster than any of the recent players the Mountaineers have deployed at what has been a blocking position under head coach Dana Holgorsen. That shouldn't get fans enticed with visions of 30 receptions at the position, however. Wesco has a ton to assimilate before he even sees the field, but the fact that he's listed as the second team tight end on the admittedly sketchy pre-fall depth chart provided by WVU does at least say something, right?
Assistant coach Joe Wickline's son Kelby Wickline has also come aboard at tight end, as has walk-on freshman Nathan Green. Still, all will have to battle to see any playing time ahead of redshirt freshman Stone Wolfley.
At fullback, in-state walk-on Elijah Drummond is the new face in the group, but his path will be a typical one faced by walk-ons, as he has a number of established players in front of him.
Joe Wickline has the oversight of both positions, but as he shares some duties with the tackles and line coach Ron Crook, he also has a hybrid job with these spots. Running backs coach Ja'Juan Seider works with the fullbacks at times to hone their interactions with the running backs and work on timing, which again raises the interesting point of how all of these disparate duties will mesh. We discussed this dynamic in the offensive line outlook, so it doesn't bear repating here, but one additional positive the shared plan could bring is the value of fresh and different voices. As in any walk of life, it can be tiring to hear the same thing from the same person repeatedly, so getting different input could help break up some of the repetitiveness of practice and hold the interest of the players.
In Wickline's work with the groups during spring individual drills, a great deal of attention was paid to blocking technique, including the targeting of correct areas of the opponent. It's often not enough to just hit a guy you are trying to block -- the contact needs to come in the right area to help move him out of the way, set up a double team, or influence the foe to move in the desired direction. Those areas weren't ignored in previous years, but they were definitely points of emphasis during spring practice.
PATH TO EXCELLENCE
Measuring the success of these positions is the most difficult of any on the offensive side of the ball. As the players here don't touch the ball often, and are usually a part of the mass of blockers at or near the line of scrimmage, getting a good read on how they performed often can't be done until gave video can be reviewed. Certainly, a nice catch, a TD or a great block can stand out, but the overall isn't something that is readily apparent.
That said, to get those high ratings, the tight ends and fullbacks must each be effective at their designated jobs. OK, so that's pretty obvious. But WVU has made the decision to get players assigned to either the tight end or fullback position, with the intent of allowing them to improve on a more narrowly focused front. Over the past couple of years, Cody Clay was a jack of all trades, but this year there are at least five or six players that WVU can put on the field at these two positions. Things were good enough here in the spring that Jon Lewis, who spent the spring at tight end, will be moved back to the defensive line for the fall.
In the backfield, Elijah Wellman will get many of the snaps, as he's a proven performer as both a blocker and a pass catcher. With Michael Ferns and Alex Brooks backing him up, WVU should have enough guys to help in short yardage situations if it wants to line up in power formations, and also not wear Wellman out. The same is true at tight end, with the difference that there's no proven performer there to lean on yet. Stone Wolfley holds the first spot on the depth chart after summer, but he'll be open to challenges from Wesco. It's there that WVU has the biggest gap to cover on its offense with the least amount of returning experience. No one player is going to fill everything that Clay provided, but if three or four can join to provide a couple of solid blockers and another pass catching threat, West Virginia's approach to filling these two positions could pay off. It may be tough for them to become league elites this year, but they if they can help the Mountaineer running attack stay productive, chip in on pass protection and grab a few passes here and there, they could be one of the bigger surprises of 2016.
Evaluating how well a tight end blocks or how well a fullback carries out a non-ball carrying assignment isn't the thing that excites fans, though. That's understandable, as "why doesn't WVU use the tight end" has been a long-time mantra rivaling the one that criticized head coach Don Nehlen for "running it up the middle" too much. Might, though, WVU get the ball to these guys a few times this year?
A season ago, Wellman and Clay combined for seven receptions. Wellman added 14 carries, which adds up to 21 touches for the two positions in 13 games. Admittedly, that's not a lot, but the productivity on those chances also has to be evaulated. Wellman averaged 5.2 yards per carry on his runs, and produced two scores on his five receptions. Clay grabbed two catches, and both went for scores. Granted, those were setups in the red zone, but that doesn't really matter. WVU's issues in the red zone should have it scrambling to figure out ways to score, and slipping the ball out to a fullback or tight end on the backside in the flat after clearouts by wide receivers is a time-honored tactic. Of course, the very nature of the move dictates that it probably can't be run on every other trip down close, but it's something to keep in mind and use a bit more -- and perhaps also on third and short or fourth and short situations.
Another plus to consider with this group is that it gives the Mountaineers more versatility. The returnees have familiarity with both the fullback and tight end spots, and could easily line up at either. Say for instance, WVU wants to go with two tight ends, or return to its jumbo package in the backfield. That won't necessarily call for a substitution. It also makes the spots less susceptible to injury -- one or two missed games won't cause a crisis.
There's a lot to watch at these two spots in fall camp, but still, the primary job is blocking. Both must succeed at that task for WVU to continue its success on the ground.
Other Fall Outlook Previews
|Offensive Line||Wide Receivers||Running Backs|