In 2019, West Virginia’s tight ends were nearly invisible in the Mountaineers’ box scores.
Top tight ends Jovani Haskins and Mike O’Laughlin combined for just 10 receptions and 42 yards in the entire 2019 season. Haskins transferred to Rutgers over the offseason and O’Laughlin, a redshirt-sophomore, became the team’s top tight end for 2020. In just six games this season, O’Laughlin has already reached 10 catches by himself and gained 115 yards. He is one of seven WVU receivers with over 100 receiving yards this season.
Entering this season, WVU football coach Neal Brown says O’Laughlin was finally ready to make an impact.
“This is his first year where he’s really had a fighting chance,” Brown said Tuesday. “He’s 190 pounds when he signs. He came here, tore his ACL in his first practice of his freshman fall camp so he has to redshirt. Comes back last year and kind of got forced into action and was really kind of fighting an uphill battle all year. Now he’s at a position with his body weight and strength where he can compete week in and week out.”
O’Laughlin was a highly rated recruit when he signed with WVU in 2018 out of Oak Park Illinois. In his senior year at Fenwick High School, he made 54 receptions for 956 yards and 11 touchdowns. He missed all of the 2018 season with a knee injury and averaged about 20 offensive snaps per game in 2019.
Coaching at Penn State last season, West Virginia offensive coordinator Gerad Parker had a front-row seat to watch one of the best tight ends in all of college football in the Nittany Lions’ Pat Freiermuth. The second-team All-American had 43 receptions for 507 yards and seven touchdowns last season.
“Being at Penn State last year and being around Pat [Freiermuth] – who’s one of the top, if not the top tight end in the country – it’s pretty cool to be able to share some of the things about [Freiermuth] that allow [O’Laughlin] to know what practice habits he wanted to change,” Parker said. “He’s taken those on with coach [Travis] Tricket, those guys have done a great job building that room.”
O’Laughlin said Parker’s addition to WVU’s coaching staff has been a big help to the team’s tight ends.
“He’s got a great tight end mind, which was a great addition to the team,” O’Laughlin said Wednesday afternoon. “Just tips and tricks here and there have been massive for me. Hearing what those guys did at Penn State and trying to replicate that here has been a big help.”
What Parker has helped the most with, according to O’Laughlin, is the little things that make playing tight end unique.
“It’s subtle stuff, it’s the little things, but in football the little things matter,” O’Laughlin explained. “It’s releases off the line, techniques catching the ball, setting up your routes with good plans. I didn’t really have that before him. He really kind of got us a big picture of what to do and the planning process before the snap of a play.”
Parker said O’Laughlin, as well as backup T.J. Banks, are turning into solid, all-around tight ends. Banks has three receptions for 21 yards and a touchdown this season.
“The way they’re fitting run game, helping us in protection and now becoming a pass threat…we’re really celebrating that with him and we want that room to continue to grow and head the way it is,” Parker said. “It’s really good to see him get to where he’s going.”
“He’s always had great ball skills, he’s always been a guy that’s good after the catch so he continues to do that,” Brown added. “Now he’s doing a really good job in the run game and the pass protection aspects. Not only him, T.J. Banks has given us quality snaps all year as well.”
O’Laughlin the rest of the Mountaineers will kick off at noon on Saturday in Austin, Texas. The game will be broadcast on ABC. WVU opened as touchdown underdogs against the Longhorns.