What head coach Dana Holgorsen and position coach Ron Crook have been building toward is finally here. The Mountaineers, after years of tweaking their approach, making blocking and schematic adjustments, of building talent and depth and experience, would seem to possess the ability to do the one thing Crook has harped upon since arriving: Play seven to eight players, and have them play well.
Every year, Crook trotted out the statement that he wanted West Virginia to go eight deep across the front, and to have that depth nearly match that of the starting five. It's every line coach's goal, though for many like Crook, it seemed more a dream than reality. And that's just what it remained as WVU added young players like Kyle Bosch and Yodny Cajuste to veteran talent like Tyler Orlosky and Adam Pankey. Sure, the unit looked solid heading into last season, with Pankey returning to his more natural inside position, and the skilled 6-5, 300-pound Cajuste manning the blindside tackle slot. Bosch was a Michigan transfer who immediately stepped into the starting spot at right guard opposite Pankey, and Orlosky had already logged nearly 1,500 career snaps entering the 2015 season.
What became abundantly clear is this: West Virginia had the ability to run the football. It could put its hand on the ground and move opposing Big 12 defenses backward, and create enough of a crease to give NFL-caliber back Wendell Smallwood the vertical lanes to become the Big 12 rushing leader. But what it wasn't doing, and what both Orlosky and quarterback Skyler Howard have mentioned time and again, was communicating effectively enough. Howard and Orlosky had experienced growing pains late in the 2014 season, when the young QB took over for the injured Clint Trickett. And though those had largely subsided by the start of last season, the line as a whole lacked the ability for clean, quick, consistent communication.
Bosch was in his first year. Pankey had moved around. Cajuste was a freshman stuck out on what was nearly an island at left tackle, forced to protect Howard's backside against some of the premiere pass rushers in the game. All that's largely gone now, and along with it dissipates the confusion and hesitation that comes with thinking rather than acting largely on instinct and experience. And that, in a nutshell, is the big stick West Virginia carries into this fall camp.
"Right now it's all about going out and playing fast," Howard said. "It's night and day. It's seeing things before they happen, see the changes in the defense. It's a lot better when (the line is) working as one wall rather than a bunch of individuals. When they work as a unit, it's a lot more effective. That's all it is, my communication to him, his communication to those guys, my communication to them."
Add in the experience and knowledge of coordinator and fullbacks/tight ends coach Joe Wickline - who has worked extensively with the tackles as well on the key area of pass protection - and the Mountaineers figure to make significant strides over the next three weeks, when the starting group begins piecing itself together with the depth provided by Tony Matteo and Grant Lingafelter. Rated by many publications as the Big 12's best or second-best offensive line, the unit figures to be the strength on an offense which returns the vast majority of its skillset talent as well.
"We're ready for the next progression," Orlosky said. "I think we are at the place where we have a legit seven people who could play in a game. But it's hard for the offensive line without pads. That's what we do, and we're ready for that."