4th of a 10-part series previewing West Virginia’s football team ahead of the upcoming season.
And in case you missed them, here are the previous installments..
Part 4 of our season preview will focus on West Virginia’s offensive line. The Mountaineers return 4 out of 5 starters from last year, with the only departure being T Marquis Lucas. The unit is again built around Rimington Award and Outland Trophy hopeful Tyler Orlosky, and will be looking to build on a strong 2015 season that saw them pave the way for the Big 12’s leading rusher in Wendell Smallwood. If they can hold up a bit better in pass protection this year they should arguably be the class of the conference and one of the better groups in the country.
The preseason recognition continues to roll in for center Tyler Orlosky. The 6’4 300 lb senior has now added a spot on the Outland Trophy watch list to his Rimington watch list and numerous other preseason All-Conference and All-American nods, but perhaps the most telling piece of recognition he received over the summer was the Iron Mountaineer award, given for hard work and dedication in the spring conditioning program.
Simply put, Orlosky is an absolute beast. He was arguably the strongest player on the team last year, and based on his reception of the Iron Mountaineer you have to think he’s only strengthened his grip on that title. He also has displayed the technique required to apply that strength in effective ways. According to ProFootballFocus.com, Orlosky has only allowed 10 QB pressures in over 1000 passing situations in his 2 years as a starter and also graded out ninth among all lineman in run blocking. Overall, he handled over 90% of his assignments last year, which is exactly the kind of consistency and excellence you need in the heart of your line. For all of his physical gifts though, his brain is perhaps even more important.
In any offense the center is right hand man to the quarterback, the Stonewall Jackson to the QB’s Robert E Lee, if you will. Every plays he gathers intel from a variety of sources (his own eyes, his quarterback, his fellow linemen) about things like defensive alignment and personnel packages and then relays signals to the rest of the line about what to do in a given situation. This is arguably even more important in a zone blocking scheme like ours where all the linemen move as one and are responsible for anything that enters their designated zone. Think of it like a phalanx: if a single member of the group falters or is in the wrong spot, the whole group fails. It’s Orlosky’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen, and to this point in his career he’s done an exceptional job of keeping everyone in line.
As far as criticisms go, there’s really not a whole lot to say. Orlosky has been consistently very good for two years now, as referenced by his individual pass protection numbers, the productivity of our ground game over that period of time, and the sheer amount of preseason accolades he’s received. If you want to nitpick, I suppose that you could argue that offensive lines operate as a single unit, and as a unit, we need to get better at pass protection, but again, that’s not something you could fairly say is a weakness of Orlosky’s. The guy really is the total package, and it should come as no surprise at this point that some people are calling him the best center in the history of the program.
Both of our starting guards return from last year, with junior Kyle Bosch and senior Adam Pankey again flanking Orlosky on the right and left, respectively. You have to figure that the trio will once again be one of the best interior groups in the conference.
Bosch is probably the more highly regarded of the two nationally. The former Michigan transfer hasn’t looked back since dropping the maize for the old gold, starting all 13 games at right guard last season and helping Wendell Smallwood to the Big 12 rushing crown. If you look back at tape of Smallwood from last year, a lot of his runs were super quick hitters that seemed to be over before they really began. And then you noticed that he picked up 7 yards. That’s evidence of the good work that Bosch, Orlosky, and Pankey were doing on the interior. They always had the opponent’s defensive line playing in their linebackers’ laps, and when you can consistently get that kind of push it makes picking up yards on the ground a mere formality.
Pankey provides a wealth of experience and has played all over our line during his five years in Morgantown, but this year he’ll again be at his natural left guard position. He has struggled a bit with pass protection at times in the past, but definitely handles himself much better on the inside where his size and strength are emphasized and any lack of lateral quickness is somewhat mitigated.
The tackle position holds the most uncertainty on the Mountaineer line, but also sports a ton of potential. Both Yodny Cajuste and Marcell Lazard saw game time last year, so even though only one of them was a week 1 starter there should be plenty for both to build on heading into 2016.
Cajuste returns at left tackle and should be motivated to impress after his 2015 campaign was cut short by an injury against Baylor. Yodny is one of those big-bodied basketball players who just look like they’re born to play tackle, and is arguably the most talented member of the West Virginia front. He actually didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, but by his senior year was already gaining national recognition as a high-level tackle prospect. He’s continued this upward trend under the tutelage of Ron Crook, winning the starting job as a redshirt freshman last year and handling himself reasonably well for a first year starter. With the Joe Wickline hire Cajuste should get even more individual attention from Crook, which should only speed up his development. I’m expecting a big 2016.
Marcell Lazard will step in at the other tackle, where he deputized last year for Marquis Lucas after Cajuste got hurt. He did well in the running game, but doesn’t have the same lateral quickness that Cajuste does and was occasionally exploited off the edge because of it. However, most players usually make their biggest improvements between their first and second years of playing, so I think we can reasonably expect Marcell to take a step forward in that area this year.
With the interior trio being mostly known commodities at this point, much of the onus for the line’s improvement as a unit rests of the shoulders of these two dudes. Fair or not, their ability to step up and protect the flanks more consistently this year could be the single most important development to keep an eye on this fall. In a perfect world, keeping Skyler comfortable and upright in the pocket will make him much more consistent (and keep him away from those scramble situations that he unfortuntely seemed to botch so frequently last year), which in turn should lead to a much more productive passing game, which should lead to a much more balanced and effective overall offensive attack.
The Mountaineers lost a crucial piece this spring when Morgantown native Amanii Brown left the program, but there should still be plenty in the cupboard for Wickline and Crook to pick up the pieces should tragedy befall one of the starters.
Tony Matteo is a 5th year senior who appeared in 12 games and played over 500 snaps last year. He adds depth at center and guard, and his experience means he will at least be serviceable if called into action.
Grant Lingafelter is a redshirt junior who saw action in 9 games in 2015. His busiest day was in mop up duty against Kansas, but he’s a big, experienced body who can play tackle or guard if required.
Colton McKivitz is a relative unknown after redshirting last year, but at 6’7 300 is an absolute behemoth. According to the recently released preseason depth chart he’s played himself into the #2 spot at RT heading into the season, so hopefully he’ll continue to work and provide some competition to Marcell Lazard that will push them both to even greater heights.
Jah’Shaun Sneider is another redshirt freshman who’s thrust himself into the discussion for some playing time this year. At 6’3 287 he’s the “smallest” of the guys currently in a 2-deep spot, but with the versatility to play both center and guard he should provide valuable depth in the short-term with an eye on locking down a starting job next year.
Rob Dowdy is yet another redshirt freshman and rounds out the 2-deep at left tackle. Dowdy is clearly talented, as evidenced by his 1st Team All-State selection in Ohio and subsequent invitation to the USMC All-American game, but it remains to be seen how well he’ll acquit himself if called into action. The fact that he’s on the 2-deep ahead of more experienced teammates speaks volumes about his work ethic and development though, and hopefully he’ll continue with that into the season.
The rest of the group includes redshirt senior Sylvester Townes, redshirt junior Brendan Willis, redshirt sophomore Dontae Angus, redshirt freshman Matt Jones, and true freshmen Jacob Buccigrossi, Josh Sills, and Chase Behrndt. The ship has probably sailed for Townes, Willis, and maybe even Angus, but all three youngsters will probably be redshirted with an eye on the future, and when coupled with the youth and talent that’s already on the 2-deep you have to feel pretty good about our line moving forward.
POSITION GRADE: 4.5/5
The word of the day for the offensive line is experience. The five starters have combined for 79 starts between them, and all have seen action in considerably more games than that. This will also be the second year with the whole group playing together, so the trust and communication that is so crucial to effective line play should be that much better heading into 2016.
Another big plus is the addition of Joe Wickline to the coaching staff. Not only will Wickline bring a creative mind to the deputy Offensive Coordinator role, but with the majority of his 34 years of coaching experience being directly related to offensive line play, he sports a ton of wisdom in that area in particular.
Even better is that WVU was able to retain Ron Crook, who has done great work up front over the past few years. We’ve gone from 7th in the conference in rushing in his first year with the program to 4th in 2014 to second last year. That’s a huge improvement in just 3 short years, and the steady, incremental nature of the gains has me thinking that it’s sustainable into the future, as well.
From what I gather, Crook is handling the interior while Wickline is focusing on the tight ends and fullbacks, and there have been no reports of any friction as of yet. As was mentioned earlier, the benefit of working in tandem like this is that they should both be afforded plenty of individual instruction time with each member of the group, so any improvement opportunities that become available will hopefully be identified and implemented quickly and easily. If they can put their heads together and get the pass protection shored up (which I think they have the knowledge and pieces to do), this year’s edition of the offensive line should again be the class of the Big 12 and will arguably be our best group in recent memory.