MORGANTOWN — This isn’t the first year that Dana Holgorsen has touted his offensive line as improved and perhaps even a strength of West Virginia’s football team.
If it pans out, though, it could be the first year it was actually true.
To say that WVU’s offensive line play the past couple of years has been shaky would be an understatement. The Mountaineers had two quarterbacks injured last year — one of them multiple times — in part because of the line’s failure to protect them. The running game was OK, but much of that was thanks to Charles Sims, who would be the second running back taken in the NFL draft.
The times during the last two seasons when Holgorsen decried the play of the line far outnumbered those when he praised the group.
If this year is going to be any different, it will likely be due to the fact that the middle of the line is experienced and the tackles promising, if not entirely tested.
Experience, line coach Ron Crook believes, is the key. In an effort to make sure the group continues to gain experience playing together, he’s pretty much settled on a starting five and is sticking to it.
“I think the biggest thing is it allows them to continue to get comfortable and get to know each other on the field,’’ Crook said. “There are ways that certain people react in different situations that you can’t get from just watching film or talking about it. You’ve got to be out there doing it. All five guys have to work together and be on the same page and work as one. And the only way you can do that is to be out there together and practice day after day after day.’’
The middle of the line has experience both working together and facing competition. Guard Quinton Spain is in his third year as a starter, guard Mark Glowinski his second and center Tyler Orlosky split the job last season with Pat Eger, although Eger filled the hole through most of the season.
The tackles both will be relatively new, but Adam Pankey on the left side has always been perhaps the most promising lineman in the bunch and Marquis Lucas started four games at guard last season.
“The guys that we’ve got slotted in the starting five right now have all played a lot of football here,’’ Crook said. “I feel good about where those guys are at and about their potential.’’
Indeed, between the five starters there is a total of 77 games of experience and 45 starts. Granted, much of that number is inflated by Spain’s 38 games and 26 starts, but Glowinski started all 12 games last season and Orlosky played in all but one. Pankey played in seven games and probably would have been a starter had he not missed the first month of the season recovering from knee surgery.
“Everybody’s on the same page,’’ said Spain, the group’s veteran. “Now we’re just trying to get better.’’
One of the biggest issues, though, is depth. Not a single player on the preseason two deep has ever so much as contributed on the offensive line. Left tackle Sylvester Townes came from junior college in the offseason, Stone Underwood (the backup at both guard spots) redshirted last year after coming from junior college, center Tony Matteo didn’t play and 6-foot-9, 315-pound right tackle Mike Calicchio played primarily on special teams as one of the shield blockers on the punt team. Marcell Lazard redshirted as a freshman in 2013.
The only real question mark in the group is who will be the third tackle behind Pankey and Lucas. From among the group of Townes, Lazard and Calicchio, one needs to emerge.
“Marcell Lazard and Sylvester Townes are younger guys who needed reps. We’re really looking for the third tackle right now,’’ Holgorsen said. “We’ve got our two starters. They need to continue to get better and hopefully they can hold out. Neither one of those guys has been counted on to play a full game, but I think they’re ready. I know they’re ready. We just need a third tackle in case something happens.’’
There should be no issue with size in the group. The starters average 312 pounds and the four primary contenders for as backups 303. None are shorter than 6-4 and the average is roughly 6-5 1/2.
As for the experienced guys, what Crook wants to see during camp is an improvement in leadership and perhaps technique. Everything else, he insists, they have.
“I don’t expect those guys to get much better from a physical standpoint, playing tougher and all that stuff,’’ Crook said. “They’ve shown that they don’t need to prove anything from that point. But they can always get better with little details.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.