MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even at 6-foot-6 with cinder block arms and barn-sized shoulders, Josh Sills felt small.
FedEx Field thundered and wretched when West Virginia collided with Virginia Tech during the 2017 opener, an environment temporarily overwhelming for the redshirt freshman.
“Yeah, I was a little nervous,” Sills recalled. At least until his teammates took charge in the huddle.
A helmeted head-butt from Colton McKivitz and a roar from Yodny Cajuste snapped Sills into focus for his first college game.
“They were saying, ‘You don’t have time to look around at the 80,000 people.’ Guys like that will bring you back down to level real fast.”
One year later, Sills won’t be so wide-eyed Saturday when the No. 17 Mountaineers face Tennessee in Charlotte, N.C.
After rotating off the bench against the Hokies, Sills subsequently started 10 games — five at each guard position. He mauled and fought his way to a team-high 13 “knockdowns” despite struggling to figure out technique.
“Redshirt freshmen offensive linemen, it’s rare that they play,” West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen said Tuesday. “He was big enough and physical enough to do that.”
Yet Sills shook his head over the missteps that sometimes left him off-balance and out-leveraged. (“My fundamentals, my footwork — it was terrible.”)
Holgorsen chimed in that Sills wasn’t sharp to the mental challenges either, such as recognizing line calls and preparing each week. Refinements in those areas could portend a breakout sophomore season.
“I think he’s past that. I hope he’s past that,” Holgorsen said. “When you’re a year older, it’s just a lot easier.”
Coming out of tiny Sarahsville in Southeast Ohio (population 166), Sills didn’t work with a specified offensive line coach in high school. “It was basic: That’s your guy, go block him,” he said. “If he didn’t make the tackle you got a plus.”
College film sessions are acutely more detailed and increasingly harsh. “Even if your guy doesn’t make the tackle, but you’re behind him when you’re supposed to be front-side, you get a negative,” he said.
West Virginia’s offensive line endured plenty of negatives last season, particularly during losses. See those 2.1 yards-per-carry against Oklahoma State, and the 1.9 vs. Texas, or the 1.4 against Utah.
“There were three or four games where we got manhandled, and any of us on the offensive line will tell you that,” Sills said. “We all took it personal, and you could tell this offseason by the energy and the vibe that we brought to workouts to be more physical and more dominant.”
Having locked up the starting job at left guard, Sills is marrying brute force with crisper technique — all with the aim of developing into the Big 12’s best interior lineman.
“I couldn’t say I’m happy where I’m at because you’’re always working for the next step,” he said. “And once you reach for it, you get that drive and you never let go. You don’t quit. You make yourself better so they never take you off the field.”