West Virginia’s offensive line has taken a long journey during the Neal Brown era.
In Brown’s first season, the Mountaineers were among the worst rushing teams in the country. They sat dead last in the Big 12 in 2019 with 879 yards on the ground — for reference, Iowa State was the second-worst running team in the league but was still clear of WVU by almost double with 1,729 yards in the campaign.
Fast forward to 2022, and the Mountaineers have shown tangible improvement in the trenches. What was once a youthful unit is now experienced, and Brown has declared it the strength of his team.
So far, the Mountaineers are averaging 217.5 yards per game — the 20th-best mark in the country.
“We played young, and we took some lumps when we were young, and now some of those lumps that we took, there was a lot of growth there and now we’re reaping some of those benefits,” Brown said. “It’s gone from a weakness to where now it’s a strength of ours.”
Guard James Gmiter joined WVU in 2018 and watched the Will Grier-led Mountaineers from the sidelines. He got his first real action as a redshirt freshman in 2019 and is one of eight WVU players who predate the current head coach.
Gmiter said one of the biggest improvements the line made in his tenure is in its attention to detail.
“All the time in offensive line play we talk about first step, second step, pad level, hat placement, and things like that are what really killed us in the past,” Gmiter said. “But over the offseason and all through summer we really harped on the little things and it’s starting to show up more often.”
It doesn’t hurt that the WVU offensive line is led by an All-American in center Zach Frazier. The former Fairmont Senior Polar Bear has earned a perfect grade from his coaches for two straight weeks, hitting on all of his assignments in the offense to help WVU earn its first two wins.
Frazier not only provides a massive boost within the scheme, but his skill is good enough to alter the scheme altogether. Brown said that because he can block nearly any defender, he creates opportunities for better double-teams with the guards and tackles. That, he said, is a luxury that a lot of other teams don’t have.
“There are 22 players on the field, but it’s really decided by a lot of 1-on-1s,” Brown said. “He wins his 1-on-1s a lot.”
Of course, there is still plenty of room for improvement. While the run game is much-improved, it still has a ways to go before it’s the best, and in the passing game, quarterback JT Daniels has been sacked five times, including some untimely sacks in clutch situations this season.
“We’re not to the finish line yet, our depth’s not where we want it to be,” Brown said. “We’re probably a year away from that, but we feel good about the progress we’ve made.”