MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The WVU Football offensive line have taken “West Virginia Strong” to heart. Of the starting five, freshman Wyatt Milum, junior Doug Nester, sophomore Zach Frazier, redshirt junior James Gmiter, and redshirt sophomore Brandon Yates, three hail from the Mountain State. Suiting up in the gold and blue means more than just a jersey and Milan Puskar Stadium on fall Saturdays. It’s about becoming a family unit and teaching Gmiter, a Pittsburgh, Pa. native, and Yates, a Delaware native, how the West Virginia culture is upheld.
It started during fall camp, when this configuration began to take shape. The current combination of offensive linemen had never played a single regular season snap together, and to make it even more disconcerting for offensive line coach Matt Moore, the starting five had gaping seniority holes. 2020 starting right guard, Mike Brown, had opted for the New Orleans Saints as a free agent. The other right guard option, redshirt freshman Jordan White, only saw time on 51 snaps over the course of three games before head coach Neal Brown redshirted him. When Virginia Tech’s resident starting right guard Doug Nester opted to instead take the country roads back to Best Virginia in December 2020, he was welcomed with open arms into an unsteady O-line room.
Next door, the entirety of fall camp was spent deciding who had earned the wide open right tackle spot. Redshirt sophomore Parker Moorer came into the 2021 season after playing in all 10 games, but the addition of true freshman Wyatt Milum stirred up the competition pot. The two were evenly splitting reps, and leading into the Maryland game week one, there still hadn’t been a conclusive starter emerge. Regardless, Moorer got the call up to start against the Terrapins, and the five-man line had its first test.
In College Park, Md., this configuration got off to an objectively rocky start together. WVU quarterback Jarret Doege was sacked three times for a collective loss of 27 yards, and the offense was held to 325 yards of total offense during the 30-24 loss. It wasn’t a good look for the starters out of the gate, and coupled with a scoreless third quarter and only a field goal score in the fourth, there was no lack of issues to resolve.
It took longer to pinpoint the issues that allowed multiple weeks of noticeable second half scoring droughts. It required a deep dive into the intricacies of building confidence in teammate cohesion, and as the weeks and losses progressed, it became glaringly obvious that something needed to change. Although on paper, the starting five should work well together, there was still a chasm between where they were currently operating and the potential that the offensive staff believed they had.
“The O-line had a really good offseason, talking to Mike,” Moore said during fall camp. “Conditioning. Everything. Running the hill. It starts in the weight room. It starts with Mike Joseph and pushing yourself to be mentally tough, and then getting on the field and just demanding that out of them. Just reminding them over and over that we’ve got to be physical. It’s a decision. It’s like everything you do. It’s a habit. Every time we put the ball down, if you tell them it’s full-go, they’ve got to be physical.”
That physicality was lacking in the first few games, but it got resolved as the offensive unit became accustomed to working together. Offensive coordinator Gerad Parker watched as the WVU offense dropped to the bottom of the Big 12 and lost four games, including three straight in conference, knowing that an overhaul had to be done. He left it to Moore to resolve, who continued to prioritize teamwork and trust into his men.
Now, seven games in, the offense is capturing national rankings. Heading into the Iowa State game on Oct. 30, the WVU offense is No. 24 in fourth-down conversions (.692) and No. 37 in fewest tackles for loss allowed (4.0). These are huge positives going into the second half of the season, and a clue that the work is paying off.
“Those guys are starting to feel what it takes to be kind of a family of five guys that have got to get it fixed and make things work against multiple looks and movements,” Parker said. “It really is a combination of all of those guys, and then Mike [O’Laughlin] and [T.J.] Banks when he came in. Mike O and those guys strain to finish out blocks in the C gap. A lot of guys involved in making it work. It’s good to see them get the reward of the results, but now it’s just about another Tuesday practice and tie back in what it’s going to take to have success this week.”
Parker takes each week as it comes, preparing for only the road ahead. It doesn’t come without recognition of the leaps and bounds made from preseason, though. He’s been receptive to all of Moore’s tweaks for his position room, and that trust between OC and O-line coach doesn’t go unnoticed.
“It really helps to have a head coach and an offensive coordinator who understand where you are,” Moore said. “He understands that it’s going to be a process. You’re not just going to flip a switch overnight… We’re getting to the point now where hopefully, we can call a game and not have deficiencies. We expect everybody to win and to be able to run the offense, so it’s been a process. It’s been recruiting. It’s been fundamentals. It’s been Mike Joseph. It’s been all those things helping everybody, and like I said, it’s been competition.”
Although Milum and Moorer are still switching reps and starts at right tackle, the other four have each started all seven games. The O-line has begun working as a unit, and it’s all to do with the camaraderie and trust built between them. Each is accountable for not only his individual role, but also the way that his play impacts the complexity of the offensive scheme as a whole. Breakdowns are combatted on the sidelines, mid-game, and errors are amended seconds after they happen. It’s a palpable switch in accountability within the program, and it’s a mindset that the starting five have all echoed.
“Even if I make the wrong call, I have to make sure we’re all wrong together,” Frazier said. “I definitely had to work on the communication. I’d say that over-communicating is better than not communicating enough.”
Moore is infusing this season’s offensive line with trust for each other and accountability to the team, and it’s only going to become more obvious as the five are tested in conference.
“It means something to be one of the starting five,” Moore said. “It means something to be an O-lineman here and that’s the point we’re playing at right now. We’ve just kind of got to continue to push that.”
Developing depth behind each of those positions has also been key to solidifying each spot, and all of the positions spent preseason cross-training in order to fill in where they fit best. At the moment, Brown sees seven offensive linemen having a legitimate chance for meaningful snaps each game. The addition of redshirt junior John Hughes to the right tackle and right guard positions creates the ability for Brown, Moore, and Parker to mix and match depending on the upcoming opponent.
“As you go through every spot you do, you do want to have five guys you can stand for and stand on and then have depth developed,” Parker said. “So, on one regard, I would say we like having those five guys there, because that’s the five working together all the time and avoid any injury and develop as much depth as we can. We’ll continue to do that, but honestly, it was really good to see those five guys out there to take those [reps] and finish games the way they did and continue to push.”
Brown agreed with the depth assessment, adding that, “We’ve got seven that we feel good about that have played for us this year, but based on [the TCU game] and how practice went, we were thinking we’d play five.”
For now, the offensive line is taking great strides to play toward their full potential, and Parker is excited to see the rest of the season’s progression. With the meat of the conference schedule ahead, and a difficult slate at that, it’s all the more important to get the reps in now. Together, this group of seven offensive linemen still have time to make their mark and help a 3-4 Mountaineer team toward bowl contention. The silver lining for WVU Football fans is that what Parker sees for the future rings of confidence; it seems as though the offensive unit is gelling at just the right time to finish this season on a high note.
“Doug Nester played his best game [against TCU],” Parker said. “Wyatt Milum’s growing up. Zach Frazier continues to play at a high, high level. Gmiter’s really started to develop into a steady eight player, and Brandon Yates showed spots of him being able to strain and finish blocks and we’ve got to continue taking steps across the board.”
Will this offensive unit be able to hold their own against the remainder of conference play? The answer will come once more this Saturday, at Milan Puskar Stadium, when the 5-2 Iowa State Cyclones come to town at 2 p.m.