West Virginia offensive linemen Joe Madsen (left) and Jeff Braun (right) say the team's blocking schemes allow them to focus on being physical with the opposition.
MORGANTOWN - When Joe Madsen went to Dallas two weeks ago representing West Virginia at the Big 12's football media days, he did so sporting a freshly-shaved Mohawk.
It wasn't so much a statement of style as it was attitude.
"The 'Hawk speaks for itself,'' Madsen said this week, his 'do having grown a bit more shaggy. "It's a whole mentality.''
There's a lot of talk about mentality where West Virginia's offensive linemen are concerned these days. And as the Mountaineers wrapped up their third day of preseason camp Saturday - the first in pads - it was time to start walking the walk.
The term "nasty'' is thrown around a lot. And now is the time to start cultivating nastiness.
"O-line, you find out about them when they put the pads on,'' offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said. "Playing offensive line is about being physical.''
True, offensive line play is a lot more than that. Technique and assignments are critical. Long gone are the days when 300-pound offensive linemen were simply tasked with stopping or moving like-sized defensive linemen who generally were in the same place snap after snap.
Line play is so sophisticated these days that WVU coach Dana Holgorsen pretty much dismisses any thought of true freshmen stepping in right away. At a skill position or on defense? Sure. But not on the offensive line.
Still, once those techniques and assignments become second nature and strength and flexibility are honed, the element that can then elevate one lineman over another is quite simple. It's the ability and the desire to be physical, to be nasty.
And that's perhaps the one trait Bedenbaugh is preaching about more than any other.
"Obviously some guys have it naturally,'' Bedenbaugh said Saturday morning before the Mountaineers had donned those pads for the first time. "Some guys are really good players and they aren't as nasty as you want them to be. I've had good players, guys who played in the NFL, who were that way. So you have to coach it. You have to instill it.
"You can have good technique, good [ability to follow] assignments, be able to block guys, but not be a tough, nasty guy. But when you're great, that's what you have. You're on your assignment, you're using great technique and you're tough and you're nasty. You can teach that if a guy wants to do it.''
If Bedenbaugh is going to be able to instill that nastiness in this year's offensive line he has a good group to work with. All five starters - Madsen at center, Josh Jenkins and Jeff Braun at guard and Quinton Spain and Pat Eger at tackle - have experience. They've been in the system for a year and understand the technique and the assignments. The hope is that those things come naturally now.
And then they can add a certain edge.
"Coach Bedenbaugh preaches that,'' Jenkins said. "He says one thing we will not be is we will not be soft. You won't step on the field if you're soft.
"I think we're more physical than we've ever been in the past. But you can't really talk about that. You have to show it.''
The truth is, West Virginia's offensive line schemes are devised to allow players to be more physical perhaps than in the past. It's all about simplicity. Sometimes coaches can out-think themselves, creating so many keys and reads and different blocking schemes that those blockers are overwhelmed by details. In this system, the blocking up front can be almost identical no matter what the skill position players are doing.
"Now it's more technique stuff and basically toughness,'' Madsen said. "You already know which guys to block. Now it's just putting them on the ground and being nasty.''
"This offense is great for us because they keep it as simple as they can,'' Jenkins said. "When you don't have to think as much it allows you to just play. They do everything in their power to keep things as simple as they can. And then because it's so simple they expect us to fly around and they expect us to be nasty.
"It's not just the offensive line, either. When the receivers are blocking they expect them to be nasty. And when you get that mindset as a team, I think that's a huge benefit.''
Much of that starts with Bedenbaugh, in his second year at WVU after spending the previous four at Arizona, including 2010 as offensive coordinator.
"He has an edge to him. The way he acts rubs off on us and that's the way he expects us to be,'' Jenkins said. "He doesn't settle. He doesn't settle for anything less than being great. He doesn't settle for anything less than being nasty. And if you're not nasty, well, you're not playing.''