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Meet the Mountaineers: Interior Line Play Could Make All the Difference for WVU’s Offense

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Meet the Mountaineers is a series previewing every position on West Virginia’s football team for 2020. Every day we will focus on a different position group and look at all the players we will see there in 2020. Yesterday we started on the offensive line, looking at both tackle spots. Tomorrow we will finish off the offense with tight ends and fullbacks.

The 2019 season was a tale of two realities for West Virginia’s offensive line.

On the outside, seniors Colton McKivitz and Kelby Wickline started all 12 games for the Mountaineers and both had excellent seasons. With those two bookending the line, WVU allowed just 21 sacks across the entire season, the third-lowest amount in the Big 12. The interior of the line, however, saw change on an almost weekly basis and was unable to provide any push up front, resulting in one of the worst rushing attacks in the entire nation. 

These two realities made evaluating WVU’s line difficult last season. Going by the rushing numbers, it should have been regarded as one of the worst lines in the country, but the good pass protection actually propped the line up to above average.

The downfall of WVU’s interior offensive line last season was injuries. The first four games of the season saw four different configurations until the flow of injuries eventually slowed down and allowed for some consistency.

The season started with Michael Brown at left guard, Josh Sills at center and Chase Behrndt at right guard. In week two Sills flipped spots with Behrdnt, where he was more comfortable. In week three, however, Brown, Sills and Behrndt were all held out with injuries.

Against NC State, James Gmiter played left guard, Briason Mays played center and John Hughes took over at right guard. The patchwork lineup held up against the Wolfpack and the offense had one of its best games all season, scoring a season-high 44 points and gaining 445 yards. Week four was finally the start of some consistency. Behrndt replaced Hughes at right guard and the trio of Gmiter, Mays and Behrndt started the next five games for WVU.

As the season went on, however, it became clear that Mays, a redshirt-freshman could not hold up against the bigger, more experienced defensive tackles that teams like Texas, Oklahoma and Baylor were throwing at the Mountaineers. Brown eventually returned from injury to play left guard, moving Gmiter to right guard and Behrndt took over at center for the team’s final three games.

With the exception of Sills, who transferred to Oklahoma State in the offseason, West Virginia will return 34 of 36 starts along the interior of the line from 2019. Even with John Hughes transitioning to play tackle this season, Behrndt, Brown, Gmiter and Mays will all be returning starters in 2020. 

The improvements WVU makes running the ball could make a world of difference for its offense this season and getting stronger play from the interior of the line could be the easiest way to see a major improvement in the running game.  

Key Departures:

Josh Sills – Transfer, Oklahoma State

Returning Players (2019 Stats):

R-So. James Gmiter (10 Starts)

R-Sr. Chase Behrndt (10 Starts)

R-So. Briason Mays (7 Starts)

R-Sr. Michael Brown (6 Starts)  

R-So. Noah Drummond

R-So. Blaine Scott

R-Sr. Zach Davis

Additions:

Fr. Chris Mayo

Fr. Zach Fraizer

Fr. Jordan White

Camp Battles:

Center is shaping up to be one of the hottest position battles on the entire team with Summer. Mays and Behrndt both started games at center in 2019, and in-state recruit Zach Frazier should also be in the mix to play. Head coach Neal Brown has lauded Frazier for his college-readiness since signing day.

Projected Starters:

R-Sr. Michael Brown – LG

R-Sr. Chase Behrndt – C

R-So. James Gmiter – RG

As much excitement as there is surrounding Frazier at the moment, we saw with Mays last season how much a young center can struggle against Big 12 defensive linemen. With Behrndt fully healthy, he does look like WVU’s best center heading into the season.

Both Brown and Gmiter established themselves at guard last season and their spots should be relatively safe for 2020. The only cause for concern would be if Mays or Frazier beats Behrndt out at center. Behrndt’s position flexibility means he could play either guard spot if he is not the guy at center.

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Cody spent the last two years getting his master's degree in journalism from WVU. He graduated from Slippery Rock University in 2018 with a degree in digital media production. He was born and raised in Mercer, Pennsylvania.

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