Losing two starters usually is not the way you would expect a football team’s offensive line to improve.
This was the reality for the Mountaineers this week, however, when both starting guards, Michael Brown and Josh Sills, were ruled out for Saturday’s game against NC State.
Through two games this season, WVU’s offensive line had been far from a strength for the team. Entering the game, the Mountaineers had only rushed for 32 yards on the season and WVU quarterbacks had been sacked four times.
Mix in an illness that held Brown out of practice all week and an injury late in the week to Sills and the situation seemed bleak, given that the Wolfpack had only given up 49 rushing yards all season.
Redshirt freshman James Gmiter replaced Sills at left guard and sophomore John Hughes took the place of Brown at right guard. The Mountaineers also featured a new center, redshirt freshman Briason Mays, replacing Chase Behrndt.
To call the the trio inexperienced would be an understatement. Among the three interior linemen, none had started a game prior to Saturday and they had only made a combined three appearances.
WVU co-offensive coordinator Matt Moore said he thought the whole line prepared well throughout the week and that would help come gametime.
“Those guys watched a lot of film this week and those guys prepared themselves and when you’re prepared you can relax a little bit,” Morre said. “When you’re out there you’re not so tense and worried so I thought their preparation was really good.”
The young linemen proved to be up to the task as, in the first quarter, the Mountaineers rushed for 46 yards, eclipsing their season total. The success carried throughout the entire game as the Mountaineers finished with 173 rushing yards and quarterback Austin Kendall was only sacked once.
Because of the extra time in the pocket, Kendall played his best game of the young season, throwing for 272 yards and three touchdowns. The offense on the whole looked better than it had previously, putting up 445 total yards and 44 points.
Kendall said he told the linemen to “just keep grinding, keep moving the guys up front. If you guys are aggressive, people will back down to you guys.”
Moore said that, regardless of the results, he was happy with the way the offensive line played.
“I was really excited about the way the kids played and the effort that they gave,” Moore said. “That’s what I’m looking for, you go out there and be physical and play hard and we’ll live with the results.”
WVU head coach Neal Brown said redshirt senior Colton McKivitz was the leader of the group at left tackle.
“Colton, to me, he’s a dude,” Brown said. “He prepares like a dude, he plays like a dude, he leads like a dude.”
McKivitz said he takes pride in being dubbed a “dude”.
“To me, a ‘dude’ is a guy you can trust to do his job,” McKivitz said. “I think I played alright today. I’m never going to be satisfied, that’s just how I’m made. Being a dude is a good thing but you also have to know you’re going to get the best from every (opposing) guy.”
With 37 career starts, McKivitz is WVU’s most experienced lineman by a wide margin. Opposite him at right tackle was Kelby Wickline, who has five starts under his belt. McKivitz said he was impressed with the play of the young linemen.
“(Playing with two news guards) wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,” McKivitz said. “I think they came in and they played their hearts out, for young guys that’s what’s expected. I don’t think they played afraid to make mistakes.”
Playing offensive line is a prideful thing according to McKivitz. He said there was a higher level of buy-in from the line during practice this week, holding extra meetings and watching more film than before.
“They were asking what else they could do to get better,” McKivitz said. “We had extra meetings before our team meetings and just that extra film and buy-in really paid off. You take pride in your job and letting the offense score and giving time to the (quarterbacks) and making holes for our (running backs). You gotta respect the game and I think our guys did that today and they played their hearts out.”