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Putting it all on the line

MORGANTOWN - There is an argument to be made that any dramatic - and imperative - improvement in West Virginia's offensive line play won't be accomplished until the fall. At the very least, it's certainly not until that time that the effort can be judged.

That's why guys like Pat Eger can't wait to get started.

"Don't get me wrong, the summer's huge,'' West Virginia's presumed starting right tackle said. "It's huge to come in here to get faster, better footwork, mostly get stronger. But as the summer goes on you want to see how much this work's going to pay off. You get anxious to get into camp.''

For Eger and the rest of West Virginia's offensive linemen, there's a lot to prove.

Statistically, at least, WVU's offensive line has done a credible job in protecting Mountaineer quarterbacks for years now. As far as opening holes for the running game are concerned, well, it's not been that good.

Granted, style of play has a huge impact on the numbers (more on those in a moment). But the perception is that the offensive line has not played well for several years now.

WVU's linemen share in that perception, at least to a degree.

Take those sacks, for instance.

"We just want to be way more dominant,'' Eger said. "Consistency is the main thing we want to find, especially myself.''

There were games that provided ups and downs in 2011.

"As a unit, we played so well against LSU and Clemson and gave up no sacks,'' Eger said. "But then we come out in a game like Syracuse and give up I don't know how many sacks. Just way too many. We shouldn't have that. We should be playing at the highest level every game.''

For the record, Eger was right about the LSU and Clemson games. In neither did the Mountaineers surrender a sack. Those were the only two clean games, though.

In four other games, the Mountaineers gave up only one sack and in three they surrendered just two. Given the amount of pass plays called, those are still respectable numbers.

But then Cincinnati (five), Pitt and Syracuse (four each) and Louisville (three) combined to sack Geno Smith 16 times, more than he was sacked in the other nine games combined (10).

That's why Eger talks so much about wanting more consistency.

"I'd go through three good plays and then take one off. Well, I don't mean off, but I just wasn't as good as the other plays.''

Before anyone takes another swipe at the offensive line, however, there are some dramatically revealing statistics about how West Virginia's offense has evolved over the years that need to be considered.

For starters, know that West Virginia's pass attempts have increased steadily in each of the last six years. They went from 193 in 2005 to 233, then 265, 305, 347, 382 and, finally, in Dana Holgorsen's first season as head coach, a whopping 542 in 2011.

But consider also that while pass attempts have increased a staggering 280 percent over that period, the 2005 team gave up 22 sacks. The 2011 crew gave up just 25. That was down from 27 the season before, when WVU's line received the most heat.  But the fact is the line gave up one sack every 21.7 pass attempts. By contrast, that 2005 team gave up a sack every 8.8 attempts. No WVU team since then has had a better rate than last year.

There is, of course, a flip side. While pass attempts have increased each of the last six years, yards per rush have decreased steadily for five seasons. The 2006 team reached a height of 6.7 yards per carry and in the ensuing years the numbers have taken a dive - 6.2, 5.3, 4.8, 3.9 and 3.8 last season.

Yes, the number of rushes has decreased, as has the emphasis on the running game. But when the Mountaineers do run they are getting worse production each season. That's where criticism of the line has been at its greatest.

But with such an emphasis on the passing game, the linemen still have to improve their run blocking as well as their pass protection. That's why Eger said there's not really one thing they are working on this summer in preparation for the season opener Sept. 1 against Marshall and then the inaugural Big 12 season down the road.

"It's a little bit of everything,'' Eger said. "That's why we have to work on being better at every aspect of our games and get ready for that first game. You can't worry about anything else but that first one and camp.

"I'm excited to put the pads back on. Spring ball was what, two months ago? I'm ready to go back on the field.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickmanl.


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