So much so that West Virginia slid former offensive lineman Eric Jobe to defense to shore up a unit about as deep as a Jack Handy joke. James Ingram has missed time. So has Johnny Dingle. Scooter Berry has been battling a bad elbow. That's one starter and two reserves, leaving just All-Big East tackle Keilen Dykes and Thor Merrow, an undersized nose guard who will try to hold off centers three inches and 60 pounds heavier, as having played through the entire camp. At one point, third-teamer Mike Bilokonsky worked alongside Dykes, who was at nose, and Berry, who had his elbow jutting out at an odd angle because of a wrap.
"What do you think I'm seeing?" position coach Bill Kirelawich said. "I'm down there playing (without numbers) half the time. We moved a guy over from offense, that's how bad it has been. The guys that are supposed to be good have been good, and the guys that are supposed to be average have been true to form."
That's 27 seasons of coaching experience and zero bull being fed from by far WVU's most tenured assistant, one that routinely turns in units and individual players who perform far above what pundits would expect. Kirelawich, a full-time member of the Mountaineer football staff since 1980, says he can't worry about who is hurt and who isn't.
"I don't get in the middle of that," Kirelawich said. "The trainers say they are hurt, they are hurt. It's like if you ever had a construction job, one guy with a pick, one guy with a shovel. The guy with the pick thinks shovelin's easy, the guy with the shovel thinks the pick's easy. It's one of those things. I'd like to get the hurt guys back, but if they are hurt, they are hurt."
It's not all gloom and doom. Dingle returned to drills Thursday, and Merrow's instincts and quickness have held off Chris Nield at the nose. The ideal would be for the 6-1, 250-pound Merrow to hold down that spot, allowing Dykes to make plays from tackle and Dingle to man the end. If Merrow cannot – and there are no surefire indications either way of now – Dykes would be forced to slide inside to nose for his senior season, something neither he nor the staff desire.
"Thor is as tough a kid as there is," Kirelawich said. "He is a good, hard-nosed, tough guy. He is physically tough. To be that small and play at this level, you better be very, very tough and he is all of that. But he better play perfect technique. Perfect. He is Pat Liebig in a smaller body. He has to be technically sound in everything he does. He has a big motor and he hustles. I like Thor Merrow a lot. I'd feel good being in a foxhole with Thor Merrow."
Liebig, a 2006 Iron Mountaineer award winner for his strength and conditioning, was a 6-4, 270-pound end with a nasty streak who did nothing more than play smart, steady, physical football. He would certainly have been a major part of the line this season – the probable starter at nose guard – if not for a family emergency that caused him to quit the team. Kirelawich said when it happened that it would really hurt West Virginia. The statement has held true, and, coupled with injuries, Jobe's move has been the result. The 6-4, 300-pounder is playing both nose and tackle.
"Jobe, I like him. I think he will contribute," Kirelawich said. "I think everybody should be able to play nose. It's like on offense, everybody should be able to snap the ball. You never know when you'll need (a center). You gotta be able to get the ball to the quarterback. Either that, or just quit, just don't play. That's nose guard. Everybody has to be able to make their bones at nose guard. That's the toughest position to play. It's a different animal."
Kirelawich said he needs more time to know whether Nield can help the team this season. He said he thinks he can, but projecting anything now is difficult. Kirelawich will know, he said, by the end of first month of the season. WVU plays five games in September, and by that near-midpoint, players will have made their strides, or failed to do so. So other than Dykes, who is leading each drill and showcasing his maturation to the leadership position, no slots are locked down along the front.
"It's not the coaches' team," Kirelawich said. "It's the seniors' team. As much of the success as we have will be because of senior leadership. Stay tuned, as they say."