The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

April 28, 2011

Line improvement critical for WVU

MORGANTOWN — Perhaps the most important evaluation out of Friday night’s Gold-Blue spring game will be that of the offensive line, which is also going to be the hardest to make because it is a line operating without either of its starting tackles.

Both Don Barclay, who is certainly of All-Big East potential and beyond, and Jeff Braun have missed the entire spring as they recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, which certainly will retard that assimilation into the new Dana Holgorsen offense and the coaching techniques of his hand-picked offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh.

If their absence creates a vacuum in what already was the shakiest part of the offense, it also has allowed some players to get a taste of playing with the first unit and to benefit from the increased instruction that comes with it.

No project is bigger — both literally and physically — than that of Quinton Spain, 345 pounds of raw offensive lineman who is trying as a redshirt freshman to muscle his way into the starting unit.

There has been much focus on him because, right or wrong, the offensive line took much of the blame for last season’s lackluster offensive showing that cost head coach Bill Stewart his future as WVU coach and got offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen fired.

Josh Jenkins, the returning starter at left guard, isn’t sure the line was as bad as everyone made it out to be, but accepts as a reality that their problems were the most obvious. He thinks the criticism, even if things improve, will continue.

“It’ll never be over. Think about it. There are five offensive linemen. There’s one quarterback, sometimes two running backs, a couple of wide receivers. It’s easy to blame the offensive linemen. That’s a fact,” he said.

Is it unfounded blame?

“I think we can take some of the blame. Some of the things that happened last year were our fault. But was every sack our fault? No,” he answered.

“In the fans’ eye view of football, the writer’s view sitting behind the computer ... and it’s your job to blame it on someone, right? You might as well blame it on the five offensive linemen and the offensive line coach.”

Bedenbaugh is aiming to raise it to a level it did not reach under Dave Johnson, an introspective, intense coach but one who was neither as loud nor as hard-edged as is Bedenbaugh.

“It’s just like a different teaching technique now,” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what to say. We had some great coaches in the past. I loved Coach Johnson. I think it’s an honor to be able to learn from both of them.”

Considering how pass-oriented this team figures to be under Holgorsen, pass blocking has been front and center ... and guard and tackle.

“We’re learning a lot of new things from Coach Bedenbaugh. He’s teaching us to play more physical. He’s helped me with my pass blocking,” Jenkins said.

The physicality may be the key, for last year the offense seemed to try to exist on finesse rather than power other than when fullback Ryan Clarke was called on in short-yardage situations.

“It wasn’t that we never played physically,” Jenkins said. “We need to finish more blocks when out of the field. That’s our goal, don’t be satisfied getting on the person you are supposed to get on. We need to finish. We need to dominate.”

Part of that will come with the return to action of Barclay and Braun, but the difference maker could be Spain, who’s almost as big as the country but remains terribly raw even at the end of spring practice.

“I don’t think 15 days is enough for him. He’s going to need more time,” Jenkins said. “I think he’s going to be a great player, but I don’t know when. He’s getting better every day, but you never know.”

Quarterback Geno Smith, who will accept as much pass protection as he can get, feels the same way.

“He is going to be a great offensive tackle or guard, whichever position he plays. He works hard. He’s an extremely big kid. He understands the game and once he gets his hands on a D-lineman, well you can see what he does out there on the field,” Smith said.

To date, he has not been able to work with Barclay, who will help him with his technique this summer.

“He plays physical; he just needs to get the technique thing down,” Jenkins said.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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