Putting it all on the line
MORGANTOWN - If there's been any one theme harped on by West Virginia's coaches through the first 10 days or so of preseason camp, it's been the play of the offensive line.
Over the past few years, that would have been a negative.
This year, it's a positive.
From head coach Dana Holgorsen to offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh, there has been little but high praise for a group that is both talented and experienced. And it is essentially the same group that has been roundly criticized in recent years for a lack of productivity.
"It was never like we had our heads down,'' veteran right guard Jeff Braun said. "We took our beatings and rightfully so. But it's part of the game. You're competing at the highest collegiate level and if you're not producing, you're going to take some blame.
"The best thing now is that our teammates have confidence in us.''
Again, that's not always been the case of late. Granted, West Virginia's changing offensive style has had far more impact on a shift in numbers than any other factor, but over the past six years WVU's NCAA rank in rushing yards per game has nosedived: No. 2 in 2006 to No. 3, No. 15, No. 24, No. 50 and, last season, No. 92. The team's yards per carry have similarly decreased, from an average of 6.68 yards in 2006 to 6.15, 5.28, 4.77, 3.95 and 3.82.
There has been a similar uptick in sacks allowed per game. In 2007 the Mountaineers were fifth in the country in fewest allowed. In the four years since, the ranking has plummeted to No. 27, No. 57, No. 71 and No. 65. West Virginia's quarterbacks were sacked twice as much last season (2.0 per game) as in 2007 (1.0).
In all fairness, none of those statistics should be grounds for criticism. After all, in terms of sacks allowed, West Virginia passed almost exactly twice as much in 2011 as in 2007, so doubling the sack numbers should be expected. The sacks per pass attempt actually decreased imperceptibly, from .049 sacks per attempt in 2007 to .048 in 2011.
Sometimes, though, statistics don't tell the entire story. The criticism of West Virginia's offensive line really began in 2008 and 2009 when converting short-yardage situations became problematic. It has improved somewhat since then - and again, style of offense plays into that considerably - but the offensive line has still absorbed the brunt of the criticism.
Is this the year that changes? Well, to hear Bedenbaugh and Holgorsen talk about the line, it has become an asset rather than a liability.
"You can never be satisfied,'' Braun said. "I'm glad that he's pleased, but we've worked hard to get to this point. It's been a rough few years sometimes.''
West Virginia will go into the season with as much experience as possible in the middle of that line. Braun, center Joe Madsen and left guard Josh Jenkins all are fifth-year seniors. Sophomore Quinton Spain and junior Pat Eger are in their third and fourth years in the program, respectively.
"As many games as we've played collectively, I think we know what's going on,'' Braun said of he and Madsen and Jenkins. "And then with the edge guys, they have starting experience. So it's not like we have to explain stuff to them.''
And the depth behind them is considerable.
"The greatest thing right now is we've got 15 [offensive linemen] on scholarship and 16 guys [at the position],'' Bedenbaugh said. "So now I've got the luxury of if a guy's not doing what I want him to do, I can put somebody else in there to motivate him if they're not self-motivated.''
The biggest difference, almost everyone agrees, is not a huge improvement in technique or an influx of talent, but in simply finishing what the linemen were always good at starting.
"It wasn't like it was terrible the last few years, but we're finishing blocks. That was the biggest thing Coach Bedenbaugh talked about was finishing,'' Braun said. "We just have a nastiness. We're on a guy and our technique is good, but now it's just trying to drive a guy out of the play, out of the film, down to the ground, whatever we can within the whistle to be a nasty group.
"It's really not that much difference. It just comes down to finishing blocks. You can be on a guy and the last few years, we were on those guys. We were blocking those guys. But now we have that extra drive to make sure we finish it. Finishing it can turn a 4- or 5-yard run into a breakout. That's what makes big plays.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.