Today, I launch my unit-by-unit preview of the 2009 West Virginia football team with the group that has the most question marks coming in—the offensive line.
(Apologies to who make a credible argument that the not-so-special-teams unit—among the worst in the nation last year—has the most question marks. I will get to them but my argument is that the offensive line is on the field half of all plays and has a greater hand in the outcome of a game, as opposed to the special teams, particularly the kickoff and punt-return teams, who are on the field for only a handful of plays.)
The offensive line is at the heart of every offensive unit but particularly so for the run-oriented WVU teams of recent years. And because of the atypical zone-blocking scheme WVU has run, Mountaineer offensive linemen have had to learn a particular form of run-blocking.
Much of that has changed.
Last year, with the hiring of new offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen from Wake Forest, WVU offensive linemen were asked to pass-block more than they had in the past, while continuing to hone their zone-blocking skills.
The results were mixed, at best. Former quarterback Pat White (boy, it hurts to write “former”) enjoyed some of his typically splendid runs and was able to develop his pocket-passing game.
At the same time, it wasn’t just the lack of a big running back that prevented WVU from picking up several crucial short-yardage first-downs. I was very critical of new offensive line coach Dave Johnson last year, more so than I was of Mullen for his play-calling.
This year’s offensive line is almost completely retooled, which has caused concern among fans and media following the team.
Gone are stalwarts Ryan Stanchek, Greg Isdaner, Mike Dent and Jake Figner.
This year’s starters include players who were at best part-timers or injured last season — Josh Jenkins and Selvish Capers—and those forced into starting roles too quickly, such as Eric Jobe.
In the past, WVU’s offensive linemen were unlikely to overpower anyone. The nature of the zone-read spread-option offense run by White and Steve Slaton was built on quick, agile offensive lineman rather than 320-pound road-graders.
That has changed.
With the installation of a more traditional, pro-style offense that still incorporates elements of the spread, WVU’s offensive lineman will probably grow bigger.
Here’s the post-spring depth chart of the offensive line, looking at their (lack of) experience and their size:
- RT Selvish Capers (redshirt senior, 19 starts): 6-5, 298.
- RG Jeff Braun (redshirt freshman, no playing time): 6-4, 307.
- C Eric Jobe (reshirt junior, replaced injured Mike Dent during season, started five games): 6-2, 284.
- LG Josh Jenkins (sophomore, saw action in five games last year until injured): 6-3, 298.
- LT Don Barclay (redshirt sophomore, played in all 13 games last year, broke leg during spring scrimmage; scheduled to be back this month): 6-4, 298.
One way to evaluate the performance of an offensive line to look at per-game rushing and passing averages.
Here's WVU’s per-game passing average during the White era.
Passing, average yards per game:
After White’s freshman season, when he took over in the sixth game and was asked to do very little in passing, the numbers are amazingly consistent. Interestingly, the average actually went down in 2008, when Coach Bill Stewart promised to throw more.
Now, take a look at WVU’s per-game rushing average during the White era:
Rushing, average yards per game:
What does that tell us? One thing I would argue is that, yes, WVU has lost experience on its offensive line coming into this season, but it has not lost quality.
It’s only anecdotal evidence, but I watched every WVU game last year and I saw a lot of offensive lineman getting pushed into the backfield instead of going the other way. Noel Devine had some spectacular reverse-field runs, but those weren’t by design. He went where he was supposed to go, but there was no hole. Worse yet, sometimes he found the offensive line caving back on him.
You may have missed it, but Stewart took something of a shot at his “experienced” offensive line from 2008, noting that none of those so-called experienced hosses got picked in this year’s NFL draft.
Everyone says that communication among players is most important along the offensive line as opposed to other units on the field. This group has grown up together as backups to last year’s starters and has played together throughout the spring.
Johnson apologists deflected blame from his line’s performance last year, saying his group of linemen had gone through three coaches in the past four years. Well, that excuse is over. Most of the 2009 linemen are blank palettes, upon which Johnson can freshly paint his instruction.
If Johnson is any good as a coach, and his instruction takes, it’s hard to imagine the 2009 offensive line could perform any worse than last year’s unit.