More To Work With

The task facing offensive line coach Dave Johnson last season was a daunting one. With only one player who had ever started more than five games at that position, he had to mold several young Mountaineers into starters. But four starters are back from that effort, and Johnson is hoping that experience will mean better play from the front five in 2010.

As spring practice began this past week at West Virginia, Johnson and company were focused on getting back in the mental flow of the game. The first two days of drills, when players were wearing shorts and helmets without their pads, made that a necessity.

"It's a tough thing, because the physical part of the game is such a huge part of it," said Johnson. "You're just looking to see that they have their hat in the right place, that they're playing with leverage and good knee-bend, and obviously knowing what their assignments are, making sure they know who to block and how to block them, and just to go hard."

"Those are the three criteria I look for: do they know who to block, do they know how to do it, and are they going hard, giving effort? Right now, I feel good."

Foremost amongst Johnson's goals is to discern who will replace Selvish Capers, the lone departed starter from last year. Capers was the veteran of the line at the right tackle spot a season ago.

No one has established a clear lead in the race to take over that spot. Johnson used Jeff Braun, Matt Timmerman and Cole Bowers at right tackle at various times in practice in the first few days.

The former Mountaineer center, who returned to his alma mater to join Bill Stewart's staff in 2008, was trying a variety of people at that spot for a reason: he wants to give almost everyone on the roster a chance to show what they can do before narrowing down the list of possible starters at that spot towards the end of spring practice.

"(I'm looking at) everybody right now," said Johnson. "We're still evaluating and trying to plug guys in reps. I had Cole Bowers at guard and put Jeff Braun at right tackle and just let them work with the starters (Wednesday), just to throw them in there when we go good against good, just to see how they react to it."

"It's just a matter of, as we get through the first four or five practices, we'll see how they do in drill work and that type of thing, then we'll start to zero in later in spring and have an idea."

While Johnson will ultimately have to determine who gets to start at right tackle, he'll also be equally focused on trying to develop quality depth along the entire line. The five starters last season famously played almost every snap.

But the chances of getting through another full season without any injuries to any lineman are slim, as the third-year position coach knows. Given the fact that he also hopes to give starters a chance to rest and keep fresh, the importance of getting the second-stringers up to speed is of monumental importance.

"Every day, we're competing," said Johnson. "I'm emphasizing just to play every play as hard as you can go. Don't take a play off. Give great effort, because you're fighting for a job. Every rep, you are fighting for a job. That's what we're trying to do -- have them compete against each other, have them compete against the defense and try to manage the game where we can have some depth and have some guys that are fresh."

"Just to give guys breaks and give guys a chance to look at a series from the sidelines, that can be a huge advantage. It keeps people fresh and keeps them in the game. So hopefully we'll be able to do that this year."

To that end, Johnson has been pleased with the play of several of his younger lineman. He singled out Bowers, Nick Kindler, Ryan Spiker and Jordan Weingart as players to keep an eye on.

But this early in the spring, there still remains plenty to be done for everyone along the offensive line -- even with four returning starters.

"We need a lot of work. That's what I've seen," said Johnson. "We've got a long way to go. But it's encouraging. Guys are giving effort, and that's the biggest thing. I think they're working hard."

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