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Regaining His ‘Football Legs’: WVU Tight End Mike O’Laughlin Returns

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Fall camp has been a killer for WVU Football starting tight end, Mike O’Laughlin.

He came to Morgantown in 2018 from the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill., after bypassing offers to stay in the Midwest, from the likes of Ohio State, Ball State, Central Michigan, Cincinnati, and Western Michigan. The three-star prospect was ready for Division I football, standing at an imposing 6-foot-5 and weighing in at 231 pounds, but he wanted to transition from wide receiver to a position that would allow his size to shine in the college football world. He found that flexibility with then-WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen’s staff, who took his versatile skillset in with open arms.

“I get more satisfaction, for sure, putting someone on their back,” O’Laughlin said with a laugh, regarding his decision to move in to tight end. “Putting another man on their back against their will is one of the best feelings on the planet.

“One thing I always thought I had was the ‘mentality’. Even in high school, when I was a receiver, it didn’t matter. When I was blocking, I wanted to put him on his back too. I just enjoy that a lot. I always had that mentality. I just didn’t have the body for it when I first got here, especially playing against Big 12 linebackers and D-ends, so there’s a process to that.”

Little did he know, the same body he was trying to transform was days away from failing him. O’Laughlin was about to spend his freshman season watching the old gold and blue play from his couch.

After suiting up for his first fall camp, O’Laughlin stepped out onto the Steve Antoline Family Football Practice Field the very first practice, and disaster struck almost immediately. A freak cut during a routine route landed him on the turf, in searing pain and grabbing his knee. He was suddenly living the kind of injury that he had only ever heard his teammates talk about; his first collegiate preseason practice, he suffered a season-ending ACL tear.

He spent the entirety of 2018 being medically redshirted on Holgorsen’s team, a successful roster that went 8-4, ending with a trip to the Camping World Bowl in Orlando, Fl. The tight end position, as Mountaineer fans know it in the Neal Brown era, was staunchly absent in then-offensive coordinator Jake Spavital’s offenses, but O’Laughlin, rehabbing from knee surgery, stayed put, content with his rehabilitation plan and the way the season was trending.

When Holgorsen left in a cloud of smoke in the middle of the night on New Years Eve, O’Laughlin watched the coaching staff he’d known since his 2017 recruitment evaporate right in front of him. Incumbent head coach Neal Brown, fresh off a 10-3 record at Troy, brought his own staff in. Still unsure of the new staff’s trajectory, O’Laughlin entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal. He didn’t necessarily have intentions of leaving, but Brown’s new staff was uncharted waters; it was precautionary.

When Brown’s staff brought with it a more prominent tight end position, O’Laughlin realized that Almost Heaven was where he needed to stay. The former wide receiver was sent out wide during his redshirt freshman season, the first under WVU’s Neal Brown era. He played tight end in 12 games in 2019, including racking up his first four starts in the gold and blue. He had six catches for 24 yards that season from then-quarterback Austin Kendall, and he earned Academic All-Big 12 First Team honors for his work off the field as well. It was a season that cultivated trust in the new staff, including the creation of his bond with tight ends coach Travis Trickett.

2020 welcomed a stronger bond not only with coaches Trickett and Brown, but also with newly-hired offensive coordinator Gerad Parker. A redshirt sophomore O’Laughlin, now weighing in at 255 lbs, started all nine games of the abbreviated COVID season, registering 15 catches for 137 yards, and a touchdown in the Liberty Bowl. He was continuing to solidify his position as starting tight end, but was still sharing reps with T.J. Banks, who came into the WVU Football program at the same time.

Disaster struck O’Laughlin again at the beginning of the 2021 season. He was named to the Preseason John Mackey Award Watch List, commemorating college football’s most outstanding tight end, but the pomp and circumstance was about to take yet another unconventional twist. The beginning of his fourth fall camp found him incapacitated with a boot on his right ankle.

“It was difficult when I found out that I would be out for a little bit,” O’Laughlin said of his diagnosis. “I missed the first two games, but when that happens, you’ve just got to put your head down and work as hard as you can to help the guys around you that are going to be in that position when it comes to game time.”

And work, he did. His role shifted slightly, as his seniority transitioned from leading by example to coaching the program’s tight ends from the sidelines. When the media met with Trickett during fall camp, he detailed O’Laughlin’s coaching style, accentuating how welcoming he was to the underclassman depth chart.

“He’s been great at being right here, making calls for the guys coming off the field,” Trickett said in August. “[The underclassmen] go right to him, so he coaches them up. If there’s something I say, ‘Did you see this?’ he’ll say, ‘Got it.’ I’ll make sure he understands it and he gets those guys aside and coaches them. It allows growth in the leadership aspect as well. That’s going to pay off dividends too.”

O’Laughlin was out for this season’s Maryland and LIU games, as coach Brown opted to start Banks instead. Watching his teammates win his job, by default, ground on O’Laughlin. He was happy that they were helping the team, but he longed to be back at the line of scrimmage. As his ankle injury eventually healed and he was cleared to downgrade to an air cast, O’Laughlin was itching to be out with his brothers, competing for the program that he felt passionately for.

“Watching the Maryland game and just knowing that there’s nothing you can really do…” O’Laughlin said. “You know, you’re on the sideline in your regular clothes… that’s difficult. In the first half of [WVU vs. Maryland], I just kind of struggled. I’m like, I had anxiety about it. Like, ‘I wish I could go out there and play.’

“Then, there was a switch that went off in my mind. I’m like, ‘I’ve just got to focus on the guys who are in the game, just aid them as much as I can. If that’s running over and grabbing Gatorade because it’s too hot out or giving them a towel, or telling them, ‘If you see this, then you might be thinking this or doing this.’ Just trying to help them out in any way I can, because if you do that, at least you’re benefiting your team in the position that you’re in.”

Now, in his three games with the 2021 Mountaineers, the new and improved O’Laughlin isn’t taking anything for granted. He’s leaving it all out on the field, prioritizing the fun atmosphere that he missed, and making sure that he returns more in-tune with the requirements of his position than he was when he was waiting patiently for his turn.

“Just being out there,” O’Laughlin said of the inherent difficulties of readjusting to the tight end position. “Where to look. Little stuff on plays. Those little things. I mean, it’s a game of inches. There are critical details in every single play. One of those little details can mess up a whole, entire play. Just understanding your job and executing on those little details… that’s what football’s about. When you come back, you’re really just trying to get back in the flow of things, but you’ve got to be aware of those little details and work on that.

“Just getting your football legs underneath you again, because that is a real thing. Once I had a few practices under my belt, I got back into the rhythm and the flow of things and now I’m ready to go.”

Coach Brown has picked up on O’Laughlin’s excitement to finally be back where he belongs, and he plans to capitalize on that firepower for as long as possible.

“The last two weeks, we’ve asked a lot out of him,” Brown said. “I thought he did a really nice job competing. I’m not saying that he won all those battles, but he didn’t lose very many. This week, I thought he was dominant, at times, run blocking… Go back and watch. I think he played really physical. He was active in the pass game. The better your tight ends block, the easier it is to get them the ball… The thing that’s really encouraging about that, and I think I’ve said this last week, is he didn’t practice all fall camp. He really just started practicing for Virginia Tech week. So, I think there’s still a bunch of improvement there as we get through the year.”

While he’s naturally transforming back into a tight end force on the field, his time on the West Virginia IR wasn’t without life lessons. He learned how to be a better leader and how to lead with compassion and kindness, even when surrounded by those competing for his position.

“One thing I’m focused on right now is setting a good example and setting a culture within our position room, not just on the team, but in our room, that we’re ruthless,” O’Laughlin said. “We’re gonna go get you. That’s kind of what you need at this position… I want our opponents to feel it too. When you’re facing that gold and blue, it’s not going to be easy, especially in that tight end room.”

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