By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
They are one big, happy, fun-loving family, although there isn’t a soul in the state of West Virginia who would offer to purchase the groceries for the Mountaineers’ offensive line.
“All of us can eat,” admitted the veteran guard, Josh Jenkins, who returns to the West Virginia University starting lineup as a senior against Marshall at noon Saturday in Milan Puskar Stadium after a year off for knee surgery. “You’re talking about a bunch of 300-pound guys.”
Three-hundred? Yeah, some of them. And then there’s the newcomer to the line, Quinton Spain, the left tackle, who weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen’s batting average.
Let’s just say on wing night at the local eateries, the servers and cooks cringe when Jenkins, Spain, center Joey Madsen, guard Jeff Braun and tackle Pat Eger come through the door.
And just who, you may wonder, is the champion wing eater?
“Spain,” said Jenkins.
“Nah, Braun,” said Madsen. “He’s just a thug ... just an eater.”
If you get the idea that this group enjoys its life, you are getting the true picture of the most overlooked and misunderstood unit in all of WVU athletics.
“This is as tight a unit as I’ve been around,” said the veteran assistant offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh. “It’s guys from five different states, five different types of people really, but they all get together and hang out together.
“They are a fun group of guys. This is probably the funnest time I’ve had coaching a group of guys in a long time. It’s not really that I think they are good and experienced. It’s how they work, their mentality.
“No matter what happens, they are fun to coach. They listen and do what you tell them to do.”
It begins right there in the middle with the two guards, Braun and Jenkins, and center Madsen, three seniors with 88 starts between them.
“We have this joke about me, Josh and Jeff are ‘The Three-Headed Monster,’ because we’re the three old guys in the middle,” Madsen said.
Someone decided to add a touch of levity to the moment and asked Madsen if it was true he had started playing when Don Nehlen was still coach.
“I feel that old,” he said, not looking that age under his modified Mohawk haircut.
The truth is that Madsen, who is a legitimate Rimington Award candidate as the nation’s top center, and Braun are recognized as leaders not only of the O-line but of the offense.
“Those are fun guys. Those guys are two guys that will stand up and say something,” coach Dana Holgorsen said.
On the field and off, Madsen and Braun are tight, but over this past year, it has spread throughout the offensive line.
“It’s with all of them,” Bedenbaugh said. “There’s a lot of things I couldn’t say about them last year at this time that I can say about them this year ... their demeanor, the way they work, the way they approach the game is totally different, and their cohesiveness as well.
“It’s showed up in the way we’ve practiced. Obviously, you hope it carries over into the game.”
Certainly there is no reason to believe that it won’t. As noted earlier, this group has been terribly overlooked.
If you do not believe that, think back to those 70 points put up on the scoreboard by WVU in the Orange Bowl and then think to how many stories you read about quarterback Geno Smith, receiver Tavon Austin, receiver Stedman Bailey, running back Shawne Alston.
And how many did you read about the offensive line that made it all possible, not only there but in helping the Mountaineers gain 500 yards on LSU, the nation’s No. 2 team?
This is how Madsen put their performance in the Orange Bowl:
“Everything worked. I could care less what anyone said. The offensive line was just amazing. We blocked everybody. It was nice.”
And Madsen is an honest type, not one to manufacture false greatness. In fact, you ask him about how different this line is now from the one that debuted last year against Marshall and you get as truthful an answer as you could ever get.
“I hate watching us last year against Marshall. I don’t know what I was doing. It was like I was a freshman again. My footwork, my technique was terrible. I promise, I will not play like that Saturday,” he said.
Bedenbaugh’s assessment of the bowl game is somewhat less glowing than was Madsen’s, although he does know that his group put on a good enough performance so that Clemson could not stop anything.
“We played pretty good, but it’s always the same. There’s a fine line between playing good and playing great,” he said. “A lot of people look at the bottom line and see we didn’t get sacked and rushed for so many yards and go by that, but there’s still a lot else. In a game like that or the LSU game, games where you have good stats, there’s so many things you can do.”
He gave an example from a previous life.
“When I was at Arizona, we played USC late in the year and beat them and gave up no sacks. When we played Oregon, there were three sacks, but our O-line played so much better against Oregon than they did at USC.
“I know, people on the outside were thinking, ‘Wow, zero sacks and they won the game.’ There was no truth to it at all. Our line played so much better when we gave up three sacks and got beat.”
Offensive line coaches and players accept their anonymity and the misjudgments from the media and public.
“People really, truly don’t understand offensive line play,” Bedenbaugh said. “It’s a tough position. A few people who coach, a few who played, there’s just a few people who truly understand.”
That translates into saying nobody under 280 pounds can understand offensive line play.
The youngest, most inexperienced on the line this season is Spain, a budding star.
It comes not from his massive size but the massive size of his heart, according to Bedenbaugh.
“A lot of it starts with him. You know, guys become great players. Obviously we lead them, push them in the right direction ... but guys become great players because of themselves, really. Ultimately, they have to put up the work,” Bedenbaugh said.
“That’s why you don’t get caught up in all the 5-star and 4-star ratings busts. You see it all the time. Those guys are talented, but they don’t have that something else, just the talent. To me, no matter what your talent, you have to have something in you to take coaching. I’m going to coach them hard. Sometimes they think they’re doing good, but it’s not good enough.”
And part of that something else is an attitude and support group like the Mountaineer offensive line, which is carried by the strength of all of them together rather than by five individuals.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.