Berk, Offensive Line Face New Type of Challenge

Prior to the last two seasons, the Mountaineer offensive line was the subject of a great deal of speculation, and questioning, as to how the untested group would perform. This year, with a veteran corps of players back and expected preseason accolades on the way, the type of attention being paid to the men up front is a bit different.

Two years ago, with a callow group of players, Rick Trickett and his troops were constantly fingered as the possible weak link on the Mountaineer football team. Last year, with the last-minute loss of Tim Brown and the slow development of other players, the line again went through a period of questions before coming together into a solid unit during the second half of the season.

In the spring of 2004, the situation is different. The men in the Mountaineer trenches are expected to be tabbed as one of the top groups in the Big East, if not the entire country. Therefore, while the line is still getting some attention, it's of a different sort.

It might be expected that the linemen, after undergoing a couple years of questions about their ability, would be basking in those early assessments. However, leaders along the line, including senior Jeff Berk, are being careful that the group doesn't rest on its laurels.

"You can never be comfortable with how you are doing, because once you are comfortable you can only go down," Berk said after practice recently. "We don't look at [the praise] that way at all. We look at it as a challenge in that people are looking at us as one of the better offensive lines in the country, and we need to prove it.

"When they have high expectations, we want to go even higher. If someone says we are in the top five, then we need to go out and prove that we are."

That attitude is just what one would expect of Berk, who is a mature and battle-tested leader on the offensive line. He has fought through several injuries during his time as a Mountaineer, and is one of the seniors that head coach Rich Rodriguez is expecting to provide leadership to the reast of the team during the 2004 season.

One of the reasons that Berk and his teammates are being rated highly is that they return so many starters, as well as veterans with playing time, from a season ago. And although it's almost become a cliche, Berk observes that playing alongside the same group of people has benefits they go beyond simple game experience.

"It gets you more familiar with the person, down to how they talk," the 6-5, 280-pound stalwart said. "Everyone talks differently, and says things in different ways. [For the line calls] some guys might call it sooner, while others call it later. It's the same call, they just do it in different ways. Having the same five out there is helpful in getting that communication down."

To prepare for his final go-round in gold and blue, Berk hit the offseason conditioning program with a vengeance this winter. He looks to be in the best shape of his career, and despite the additional challenges of practice, appears to be ready to go in WVU's spot the ball offense.

"You don't do a whole lot of running during the winter, so you get a little tired when you first come out here for practice," Berk noted. "It's a little different, but whether you are inside working out or out here hitting, it's still hard.

"I feel comfortable whether we're going fast or slow - it's all pretty much the same now," the Huber Heights, Ohio native said of adjusting to the differing speeds of the West Virginia offense. I've been doing it for so long, it seems like it's all one pace. I feel good with how it is going, and it seems to be working pretty well."

Things were certainly going well on the first scrimmage of the spring, when Berk and his mates powered the offense to a 70-yard touchdown drive on the opening series. And while that had to puff out the chests of the line just a bit, Berk echoed his earlier sentiments.

"We never get too confident. That's what we are expected to do - drive down, eat the clock and score, and that's what we did on that drive. Like I said before, if you get satisfied, the only place you can go is down."

Spoken like a true senior leader who plans on answering the challenge.

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