Threading the Needle
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The end of the regular season couldn’t have come at a better time for West Virginia’s undermanned offensive line.
The Mountaineers began 2011 without three-year starting offensive guard Josh Jenkins, who injured his knee during the spring game, and went through the entire campaign using a core group of just seven players. First-year O-line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said last week that the absolute minimum number of guys he needs in his entire group is 15, with a more comfortable number being closer to 18.
However, this year he has had access to only 14 healthy players, one of those being converted tight end Cody Clay.
“We’ve got to get some numbers,” Bedenbaugh said. “But we’ve got to get some quality numbers. We are not going to just go out and take anybody to fill a spot.”
This coming February, Bedenbaugh hopes to ink as many quality O-line recruits as possible on signing day. West Virginia is losing just two starters to graduation this year, which will help its depth woes down the road.
“I wish we could take 20 but we can’t take that many,” Bedenbaugh said. “It depends upon what we can get. We’re not going to turn away good players. Obviously, there is a limit on what we can take, but hopefully we can get at least five.”
Really since Rich Rodriguez’s departure in 2007, West Virginia has been behind the eight-ball recruiting quality offensive linemen - and keeping them in the program.
The Mountaineers signed three offensive line recruits in 2008 – John Bassler, Josh Jenkins and Joe Madsen, with Jenkins and Madsen becoming multi-year starters. Jeff Braun, originally recruited as a defensive tackle, has also become a fixture on the offensive line.
In 2009, West Virginia went out and recruited five offensive line prospects but two are no longer around. In 2010, the Mountaineers were 1 out 2 for O-line recruits and then 3 for 4 in last year’s class.
Over a four-year period, West Virginia has signed 14 true offensive line prospects with 10 of them still being in the program. Also, one tight end, a defensive end and a defensive tackle have since switched to the O-line (that’s not counting walk-ons such as Tyler Rader).
West Virginia’s 14 O-line recruits is actually on par with what the rest of the Big East has signed over a four-year period, with South Florida inking a league-high 18 O-linemen and Cincinnati a league-low of nine during this most recent four-year cycle.
But not counting converted defensive end Curtis Feigt, Bedenbaugh has been working with just six game-ready players this year, which has forced him to thread the needle a little bit. Despite West Virginia’s dangerously low numbers, Bedenbaugh admits it’s not all that unusual in college football today.
“It’s like that at a lot of places,” he explained. “Obviously we need to get it to where it’s not like that but I’ve been in these situations before. It takes time. You can’t just get all of the numbers at one time.”
Bedenbaugh says some of his guys were worn down at the end of the season because of the high number of practice reps and game reps they have been forced to take. Plus, West Virginia doesn’t have the biggest O-linemen around, which only amplifies things.
“To some degree everybody is worn down,” Bedenbaugh noted. “We’re practicing with seven or eight guys the whole year - a lot of times just seven because we have guys that miss practice, and we’re rolling guys into different positions. I think just practicing, taking all of the reps and then the games they’ve obviously worn down some.”
That’s one of the reasons why Bedenbaugh started both Quinton Spain and Feigt on the right side of the line in the second half of the Pitt game. Feigt was brought up from the scout team just a month ago, and Spain had only seen spot duty throughout the season, but both have the size Bedenbaugh prefers in his offensive linemen.
“They’re bigger guys,” he said. “They’re harder to throw around and handle. They’re harder to get your hands on them. They bring some size, and what they can do is they can wear down defensive linemen instead of the other way around.”
Perhaps even more important than the size those two bring to the position is the competition they are now providing in practice every day. Pat Eger and Tyler Rader have both responded to the challenge.
“There’s got to be some motivation and there’s got to be some competition,” said Bedenbaugh. “The biggest thing that we lack is competition. These guys need to push each other. If you’re not self-motivated then you’ve got to get motivated some way, and being on the bench hopefully motivated those guys. And I think it did. (Eger and Rader) played better against South Florida.”
In Feigt, Bedenbaugh is not totally sure what’s he got because of his limited football background since coming to the States from Germany.
“He’s a big guy and he likes playing football. Obviously he’s got to learn a lot of things about offensive line play,” Bedenbaugh said. “He hadn’t played a lot of football in general, and just moving to that position takes some time. He’s done a good job. To get thrown into the mix like that without practicing a whole bunch with us is a heck of a job.”
Bedenbaugh said who starts on the right side of the line against Clemson in next month’s Orange Bowl will be determined by who performs the best in the practices leading up to the game.
“I would anticipate all four of those guys playing,” he said. “Coming out of (USF) Eger and Rader played better than Spain and Feigt. The Pittsburgh game it was the opposite way. We’ve just got to get some more consistency out of all those guys.”
And while the present has been a struggle getting the numbers right, Bedenbaugh is encouraged with what he’s seen from the three guys the coaching staff recruited last year now playing on the scout team – Russell Haughton-James, Brandon Jackson and Marquis Lucas. Those guys will team with Jenkins to give West Virginia a much more competitive situation this spring.
“I think they’re progressing really well,” he said. “They’re on scout team and we actually got to practice some with them (Friday). We’ve got the practices through the bowl game and then we have spring ball, so we’ll see a lot of progression out of those guys. They’re athletic guys; they’ve just got to get bigger and stronger.”
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