From Anonymity To Integral Part

Fullbacks and tight ends will likely play an even bigger role in West Virginia's offense this season.

It wasn't all that long ago that the positions of fullback and tight end in these parts were used about as useful as the grass practice fields which sit adjacent to the Caperton Indoor Practice Facility.

That is to say that, once or twice a year, they might have made a brief cameo, but for the most part, they toiled in anonymity.

Then, during the spring of 2005, some guy named Owen Schmitt starting running over first-string linebackers and into end zones. Though his 6-3, 250-pound frame screamed fullback, Schmitt's ability to make plays with the ball in his hands left WVU's coaches no other choice but to give the man a handful of carries from time to time.

Ultimately, Schmitt gave the coaching staff a whole lot more than what they or anyone else likely expected. Three years, three bowl wins and roughly 1,000 urban legend Owen-isms later, Schmitt has left a gigantic void at WVU in a role which used to be anonymous.

With Schmitt having departed to the NFL as a fifth-round selection of the Seattle Seahawks, the competition to fill his place in the lineup has included a pair of freshmen (Tyler Urban and Ryan Clarke) and a converted wide receiver (Will Johnson).

By season's end, it is likely that all three will have seen snaps at the position. Johnson is seen as the most versatile of the group, and having worked at his new position during spring drills, also has a good grasp on what is expected. Urban, profiled earlier this week on BlueGoldNews.com, looks a little more comfortable at tight end now while Clarke looks more comfortable at fullback.

Add in solid blockers such as Maxwell Anderson and Sam Morrone, plus the addition of converted defensive lineman Thor Merrow, and somehow, some way you have to figure the job will get done.

No matter who is in the lineup, though, they will no longer be the forgotten men thanks to Schmitt's play. Charged with showing these players the way is associate head coach Doc Holliday, who mentors the fullbacks and tight ends. Holliday expects the fullback/tight end by committee approach to prove successful in year one of the Bill Stewart era, especially given offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen's preference for using double-tight sets from time to time.

"It gives us a lot of flexibility, and creates some things we can do with protection," Holliday said. "Coach Mullen likes having two tights in there."

The methodology behind getting the players ready for game action is this: teach them both positions, find their strengths at each and take said strengths into consideration when looking for a way to apply it to the gameplan, be it with or without the ball.

Johnson, for instance, has some natural abilities at both spots. As a former receiver, he certainly possesses pass-catching ability that could make him a factor in the passing game from either spot. Clarke, a 260-pound freshman from Washington D.C., can definitely put a hat on a hat to spring open a hole for the likes of Noel Devine or Pat White to run through.

In an ideal world, there would be players with Schmitt's size and determination and Johnson's athleticism rolled into one. Unfortunately, those who do fit that profile are few and far between.

"We're looking for the 6-3, 6-4 240-pound guys who can run a 4.3 and play both. If one comes along, let me know," Holliday said, only half-way kidding.

As mentioned above, each of the fullbacks and tight ends in the program possesses his own unique skill set, and it is up to Holliday, Mullen and head coach Bill Stewart to tailor those skills for the betterment of the team.

At the end of the day, no one person will be replacing Owen Schmitt in 2008. The mere fact that finding a fullback and tight end to work into the gameplan is of high priority, though, is an ironic testament to the evolution of West Virginia's spread offense.


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