In-state, offensive line recruitment at the top of West Virginia’s needs

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Even if offensive line was one of West Virginia’s strengths this season, it would be one of the primary points of emphasis in recruiting heading into next season.

The Mountaineers are losing both starting tackles to graduation, creating a pair of immediate needs. But given the struggles of the unit, there is an even stronger sense of urgency to bringing new bodies into the fold.

West Virginia ranks 128th in the country running the ball. Thanks to the play of senior tackles Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline, the team is faring far better in pass protection, ranking 33rd with 14 sacks allowed.

“It comes back to pure strength,” said offensive line coach Matt Moore. “It takes a lot more power to move people around then it does to slow them or stop them. We’ve got good feet and we move well, so we run the outside zone decent. We pass protect pretty good. But to move people around, you need power at every position. Having that power is the biggest thing.”

For the most part, power is built in the offseason.

“It comes with age, having some older guys,” Moore said. “Look at K-State — five redshirt seniors on the O-line. That’s what we’re trying to get to, not plugging and playing.”

Depth has been another issue.

Since right guard Josh Sills underwent season-ending surgery, only seven offensive linemen have seen serious playing time.

Offensive line coach Matt Moore has been trying to get the team’s true freshmen to a point where they can contribute, but that time may not arrive until the spring.

“We’re developing some younger guys,” Moore said. “The two young tackles, Brandon Yates and Parker Moorer, are really coming along. I’m excited to see them grow and add to the guys that we can bring in mid-year. We’re going to keep adding to this thing and recruit to get better and better.”

Moore said the plan is to bring in four offensive linemen in this year’s recruiting class with the possibility of adding a fifth.

Chris Mayo, one of the team’s three four-star commitments, is one of those players. So is Fairmont Senior’s Zach Frazier, a two-way player in high school who will be brought to WVU to play center. Junior college tackle Jacob Gamble is also committed to the Mountaineers.

In a roundabout way, WVU head coach Neal Brown brought up one of the factors in this year’s lack of offensive line depth. Asked separately about the importance of in-state recruiting on his Thursday night radio show, he noted that top two recruits in West Virginia last year are already starting for Tennessee and Virginia Tech.

“We have to get the FBS talent in the state,” Brown said. “A year ago, there was two kids now starting for Power Five programs as freshmen we weren’t able to get. We have to be like Georgia, Alabama, on and on. We have to sign the top kids in West Virginia to be a championship-level program.

“Let’s say there’s three Power Five players on average. Let’s say we sign them every year, that’s 15 in your program. Let’s say there’s another 8-10 walk-ons that earn scholarships like Dante Bonamico. Now more than a quarter of your team is from your home state. If we get to that, we get this thing rolling.”

Spring Valley’s Doug Nester has started seven games at right guard for Virginia Tech this season. Huntington’s Darnell Wright has started the past four games for Tennessee — two at right guard and two at right tackle. If those two were in the Mountaineers’ lineup, odds are there would be a different conversation about WVU’s offensive line at the moment.

Esdale the arm

West Virginia Mountaineers running back Kennedy McKoy (6) celebrates with quarterback Austin Kendall (12) after scoring on a touchdown pass from wide receiver Isaiah Esdale.

West Virginia has a recent history of turning quarterbacks into wide receivers, as seen in the form of David Sills and William Crest Jr.

After last Saturday, some WVU fans may want to see them try the same concept in reverse.

Wide receiver Isaiah Esdale looked like a pretty capable thrower against Texas Tech, completing a 24-yard trick pass to Kennedy McKoy for a touchdown. And as it turns out, that isn’t even close to the most impressive thing he’s able to do.

When Brown searched for receivers and running backs who could throw the ball downfield in preseason camp, Esdale ran away with the competition.

“One day we were out on the field and he asked everybody to stay after and throw the ball,” Esdale said. “I messed up on a couple throws. But then at the end of practice, I threw it from the opposite 40 and hit the goal post twice. So then they were like ‘Yeah… we’re going to use him.'”

That means that Esdale has the ability to throw 70 yards on a dime if needed. Esdale has a post-practice habit of engaging in competitions with the actual quarterbacks that are reminiscent of the old Quarterback Challenge competitions that used to air on TV.

That ended up being the scenario which won him the trick-play job rather than the actual tryout.

“I always mess with the quarterbacks to see who can throw further and who can hit what,” Esdale said. “Me and Trey Lowe were doing it and I hit it twice, right on the spot.”

Uniform update

West Virginia will go with what can be described as an icy look at Kansas State, wearing blue helmets, white jerseys and white pants.

Fortunately, there is no white stuff in the forecast as the kickoff temperature is expected to be in the neighborhood of 58 degrees.

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