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September 2, 2011

WVU line takes aim at doubters

MORGANTOWN — Thousands upon thousands of words have been written and spoken over the past few months about the high-flying offense Dana Holgorsen brought with him to West Virginia University from Oklahoma State, an offense that produces yardage and points almost as prolifically as McDonald’s churns out French fries.

It is a proven offense, one that has ranked among the nation’s leaders every year now for half a decade and there are those who ask, as Sunday’s 3:30 p.m. opening game against Marshall approaches, if there is any reason to doubt that will continue.

The doubters, of which there are always a few, answer in three words — the offensive line.

It is to them that veteran center Joey Madsen had a message:

“Don’t doubt us. That’s all I’ve got to say.”

Certainly it is true that this was the Achilles heel a season ago. Offensively speaking, Geno Smith had a nice first season, Jock Sanders and Tavon Austin proved themselves capable receivers, but things just never seemed to work out, in part because Noel Devine could not operate at all behind a forward wall that allowed defenders to be harassing him almost before he had the ball.

That, though, was last year and it’s as stale a memory as last week’s bread. There is a new offense in place, a new offensive line coach in Bill Bedenbaugh and a line that has done “The Bedenbaugh Shuffle”, to keep in line with the popularity and publicity “Dancing With the Stars” has garnered recently.

Why should people not doubt the offense, Joey Madsen? What is the new identity?

“Fast and physical … that’s what we be,” said Madsen.

It is interesting how they got to be believing in this, for the year started in the worst of ways, starting left guard senior Josh Jenkins going down for the year with a knee injury in the spring game, a move that forced Jeff Braun to move from right tackle to left guard, where he is a far better fit.

That allowed two new starters — Tyler Rader at right guard and Pat Eger at right tackle — to give the line new blood and different look, Eger narrowly beating out 330-pound Quinton Spain, who some believe will be an All-American within another year or two.

Bedenbaugh was obviously facing a coaching dilemma when he took over, but as with this entire new staff, he had his way of doing things and went about his business.

Last year?

“We never talked about it, honestly,” he said. “If they had been the best or the worst offensive line in the country it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go about how we do things our way. We never approached it.”

He watched film some, but mostly he watched the players he had in the spring and then this summer. He taught them the techniques that they have used in this offense, measured the skills that are important to this offense.

“Once changes are made it is about moving forward. It was about saying ‘You guys have to believe in what you are doing. You have to be confident,’” he said. “If you build the confidence in them, that’s how they’ll play.”

And so it was that it began with a teaching approach, both for the players and for Bedenbaugh.

“I don’t care where you coach or who you coach or when you coach, it’s a challenge,” he said. “It’s a challenge to develop guys. It’s a challenge to get the best out of them. If they’re the best players in the world, you still have to get that out of them. You have to make them go to places they don’t even know they can go.

“I don’t know that ever happens, but you have to keep developing and keep getting better and better. You move people, try to find the best spot for them, put them in the best spot for them to be successful. That is what coaching is about,” he concluded.

And then a Tyler Rader comes along, not the greatest player in the world, but a competent, capable, driven player on a mission who muscled his way into the starting line.

How did he manage it?

“He was better than the other guys,” Holgorsen said. “He blocked people better. He’s tough — it means lot to him. Assignment-wise he’s good and talent-wise he’s been good. He’s not the most overpowering guy that’s ever played the position, but with consistency and getting in front of people, he’s been good.”

And sometimes being good is better than being great, because the good only survive with total focus and dedication.

It was a long haul for Rader, a fifth-year senior who just this spring was put on scholarship, so landing a starting job is a wonderful reward for his dedication and effort.

He’s been a redshirt, suffered an ACL injury, played offense, played defense, was even a tight end before landing at guard.

To play tight end he had to take off about 45 pounds, which was tough, but once he went back to guard he rounded quickly into shape.

“I blew up pretty fast,” he told the Charleston Daily Mail in July. “Once I knew I was back to the offensive line for good, I started going to the Chinese buffet a lot. I got up to about 305 pounds, but I’ve lost it now. I’m 292 and feeling really good.”

Now this line, which is anchored by the veterans Madsen and Donnie Barclay at left tackle, has to show it can be fast and physical against a team in a different colored jersey, because the time to prove themselves begins with Marshall on Sunday.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel

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