MORGANTOWN — Adam Pankey had reached near-legendary status before he ever stepped on the field for West Virginia’s football team.
It wasn’t that anyone had ever really seen him play or even practice all that much. The truth is, he did none of the former and little of the latter after arriving on campus during the summer of 2012. He spent that fall working with the scout team, then when the season was over, went under the knife and had a knee repaired.
No, what elevated Pankey was not what he’d done, but what coach Dana Holgorsen seemed to think of the 6-foot-6, 304-pound tackle from Hamilton, Ohio. When Pankey had knee surgery, Holgorsen lamented the fact that he would miss spring practice. When he wasn’t recovered in time for fall camp, Holgorsen again publicly cringed. And when Pankey went through the first month of the 2013 season without recovering enough to play, his coach bemoaned his absence again.
Certainly this guy that the coaches wanted on the field so badly had something special going for him, right?
And then, finally, Pankey was ready to play. He made his debut briefly in a game against Oklahoma State, then midway through last season in a game at Baylor, he finally got some real playing time. He wasn’t ready to start and play an entire game, but he was going to begin to help shore up an offensive line that needed every bit of help it could get.
So during what would become an embarrassingly lopsided loss in Waco, Texas, Pankey trotted onto the field for the first time. And then no sooner had he worked up a sweat before he trotted off, ejected.
No, not dejected. Ejected.
“Oh, yeah, Baylor,’’ Pankey said with a smile when asked to recall his first real playing time. “It was my first game and it was the one I got kicked out of.’’
Through all the controversy surrounding college football’s targeting rule last fall — players deemed to have targeted an opponent, generally with a hit to the head, could be ejected — Pankey was a rarity. Quick, name another offensive player who was bitten by the rule. There might have been a few, but if so, they were rare.
Yet when Pankey pulled from his spot on the left side of the line that night in Texas, ran to the right to lead a sweep and then led with his head into a Baylor defender, out came the flag. And out went Pankey.
“That’s what they said,’’ Pankey recalled. “I guess that just shows that I’m aggressive. I ain’t scared to hit nobody.
“It was kind of negative because no one wants to get kicked out of a game. But it was kind of funny. I got to hit somebody and that’s what I like to do.’’
It had been a long time since Pankey had been able to do that, of course. It was really his first game in almost two years, or since he was a senior in high school, after he sat out all spring and summer and half the season rehabilitating his knee.
Pent-up aggression, perhaps?
“Oh, definitely. At least a little bit,’’ Pankey said. “I had a lot built up, being out seven months or whatever it was. I was eager to get out there and throw my body at people.’’
Well, now that the knee injury and the ejection and all the other peripherals are out of the way, Pankey is attempting to show just why Holgorsen was so bummed out over his absence.
As the Mountaineers head into the final few practices of the spring — including Saturday’s public workout in Charleston — the sophomore-to-be is fairly entrenched at left tackle. Assuming he remains there, he will be one of two new starting tackles on a line that includes veterans Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski at guards and Tyler Orlosky at center. The new right tackle is junior Marquis Lucas.
With three veterans in the middle and a star-in-the-making — at least judging by Holgorsen’s comments — at left tackle, that porous offensive line from a year ago figures to be better. And with Pankey playing alongside the other acknowledged standout on the line, Spain, the left side seems just about as good as it could be.
“We just generate a lot of force,’’ Pankey said of himself and the 6-5, 342-pound Spain. “We’re both real big and we like to come off the ball and we like to be physical. There’s nobody else I’d rather work next to like that. Spain’s the most experienced of all the offensive linemen, so that gives me a lot of confidence.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1.