The lasting image for me when I think back on the 2021 season is the image of I believe Brandon Yates being thrown down on his butt against Minnesota early in the game. That one play and one image summed up the entire 2021 season (and just about the entire Neal Brown tenure thus far). Inadequate line play led to poor quarterback play which led to non-existent wide receiver play. The line was offensive.
A couple years ago, that was probably our weakness, our offensive line. I think we’ve grown every year. Going into this year, we have every single person back, so we’re just trying to build on top of that. That’s really one of our main strengths, our experience upfront.” - West Virginia Center Zach Frazier
The five returning starters are: Wyatt Millum, James Gmiter, Zach Frazier, Doug Nester, Brandon Yates or Ja’Quay Hubbard. This is a rare occurrence for West Virginia, and college football as a whole.
Schools that return ALL FIVE starting offensive lineman in 2022:— Brad Powers (@BradPowers7) May 14, 2022
Offensive lines take time to gel, take time to learn the system and take time to get physically strong enough to handle the play-to-play grind they endure. The more they play together, the better they are. The return of all five starters should give the team a boost heading into the season, one where its critical the team have a strong start to the season, especially since they play rivals Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech on Thursday night - prime time television slots that will have a lot of national eyes on both teams.
While Neal Brown had taken the brunt of the criticism for the play of the Mountaineers, the offensive line deficiencies fall squarely on the shoulders of assistant head coach and offensive line coach Matt Moore. Moore has been at the helm of the OL play for three seasons and the line play has not improved. There are a myriad of reasons that the play has been bad, from loss of talent, to COVID, to departures and others but through three seasons the offensive line play has held back the offense which has held back the team.
“In this position, it takes time to build, which no one in this profession wants to give you. But we’re building it and we’ve had a really good spring so far. I’ve made some changes from last year, I moved Wyatt [Millum] to left side....Playing tackle, especially in this league as a true freshman, confidence is huge. If you can think you’re good, that’s half the battle. So I kept him over there and we knew as soon as the season was over, we were going to move him over. Those guys have to be able to work on both sides of the ball, so it was a great opportunity. I was hoping it was going to work out and he’s really taken to it.” - Offensive line coach Matt Moore
Moving Millum, who is left-handed, to the left tackle position makes sense. It also seemingly strengthens the one position that was a weak-point last year but that one weak-point doesn’t absolve the entirety of the offensive line problems that have plagued the Mountaineers for the past 3 years and 35 games.
“We’d go into a game saying we only need to run these plays in this direction and if we run it in this direction, we’re putting all the pressure on this guy that we know is struggling. It’s been like that since I’ve been here. We’re at a point now where we can just call the offense.” - Matt Moore
That is a fair assessment that the overall offense has been limited, in part, because of the struggles of the offensive line, however, hearing a statement like that, this far into the coaching regime, doesn’t provide confidence that the right person is handling the techniques. Moore comes with high pedigree, handling Troy’s offensive lines during his time with Brown and he was the offensive line coach at Texas Tech from 2007-2011, during new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell’s run at TTU. Still, three years into the Mountaineers experiment with Moore has not produced the same level of consistency and progress that he has seen in the past.
You’ve always got to remember the things people said. You’ve got to keep receipts. That’s something we talk about all the time. It was kinda nerve-wracking to go out in front of everybody [at the Blue-Gold Spring Game], just because everybody gave us such a hard time last year. But we’re a different unit. Everyone’s going to have higher standards now because of everything they heard over the spring. It’s up to us to really perform, and I think we did that. It’s nice, but moving forward, you always kind of remember what people said. - West Virginia left guard James Gmiter
Well now is the time for Moore, Gmiter, Brown and the entire offensive line room to pay those receipts forward. West Virginia is looking down the barrel of what could potentially be a 4-0 start, or a 2-2 start. Last year, despite the win over rival Virginia Tech, fans weren’t happy and could see the future far better than anyone was willing to admit and that will likely be the case if the line continues to struggle despite the amount of returning production they have. However, if the line takes the step forward that everyone is predicting, the Mountaineers could finally begin their long arduous “climb” that has been spoken about and begin to see the peak of the mountain.