Jenkins' return bolsters WVU line
MORGANTOWN - He said it only in passing and had he had a chance to think about it for, oh, perhaps a second or two he might have phrased it differently.
Dana Holgorsen was asked this week about the progress of his offensive line,and matter-of-factly said that the players working in the opening days of spring drills "have a chance to be as good as we've had.''
Let's face it, if there is one group within West Virginia's football team with plenty of room to improve over last year's performance it is the offensive line. Wracked by inexperience and injuries and working under yet another new position coach, the 2011 version might well have been the team's weakest link.
It was certainly that as far as the offense was concerned, what with a top-flight quarterback and deep corps of both receivers and running backs elsewhere.
Yet for all of that skill, Holgorsen readily admits that it is nothing if there are not five capable grunts up front. In a way it pretty much goes without saying that the 2012 version of the offensive line will be better than its immediate predecessor.
It's a stretch to say that it couldn't be worse, but it's also not too much in the way of expectations to expect it now to be better, especially with all but one starter returning.
"Joe Madsen is a leader and is doing a fantastic job. He's a great player,'' Holgorsen said of the senior center. "Jeff Braun looks twice as good as he did in camp last year. He's in better shape, he's healthy and he understands. With Josh Jenkins coming back, he brings experience. Pat Eger is more confident than he's been, Quinton Spain is more confident.''
The biggest difference, though, might simply be one of attitude. And the guy who brings a lot of that to the table is the one who isn't returning from last year's starting five of Madsen, Braun, Eger, Spain and the graduated Don Barclay.
Jenkins, who blew out a knee in last year's spring game and missed the entire season, is more than just an experienced left guard.
"He brings a new confidence and he brings a little attitude to this line,'' Braun said. "He always gets on people.''
A starter at guard for two seasons prior to his knee injury, Jenkins is quickly working his way back into shape. Despite the year off, he was penciled in as the starter prior to spring practice without hesitation, even though he's not played a real down for Holgorsen and line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.
"I went through all of last spring, so he knows what I'm capable of,'' Jenkins said of Bedenbaugh. "He has faith I can get the job done.''
Just as significant, though, is that attitude that Jenkins brings to a group that was criticized roundly a year ago for everything from an inability to protect quarterback Geno Smith to a failure to consistently open holes for the running game.
This is a group that needs to repair some shattered confidence, and perhaps Jenkins is the guy to help do that.
"I try to go out there with a little intensity to me,'' Jenkins said. "I've been here for a while. I've been that kid who was not as physical and I've been that kid who didn't know the plays and I've been the kid that was messing up before.
"You've got to have a passion when you're out there. I hate losing. I want to be the best, and I feel like everyone who is playing with me and next to me on our line should feel the same way. You have to work hard on every play and that's what we try to get out of each other.''
So far, says Holgorsen, so good.
"Those first-level guys are doing good things. It's a lot easier now,'' Holgorsen said. "They block now, so it's a lot easier to run the ball and it's a lot easier to throw the ball.
"When the second guys get in there, it resembles a little bit what it was like a year ago. When you've got three guys coming through to the quarterback, it looks like crap. When you hand the ball off to the back and you've got people behind the block, it doesn't look very good. We go as the offensive line goes.''
Jenkins, of course, isn't going to step in and just pick up where he left off a year ago when he crumpled to the ground on the first series of the spring game. He's spent much of the last year rehabilitating the knee and now has to work back into shape, both football shape and otherwise. But he's taken the first steps.
So what did he lose in a year of not playing?
"That's a good question. I don't think I lost a lot,'' said Jenkins, who said he was so nervous about starting spring practice that he didn't get to sleep until 7 a.m. the day drills began. "You don't lose your footwork. You don't lose your attitude. You have to fine- tune it and get it back, but you don't lose it. You lose some strength in your leg, but you can always get that back.
"You just have to understand it takes time. But I still have a long time until September when I have to be where I need to be strength-wise.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.