West Virginia is poised this year to have one of the best offenses in college football. Will Grier leads the way at quarterback and creates a dynamic passing attack when combined with two standout wide receivers in David Sills V and Gary Jennings. WVU returns a stable of running backs in Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and red shirt freshman sensation Alec Sinkfield. While all this fire power and talent has the Mountain State bubbling with excitement, the talent along the line of scrimmage is woth recognizing. This year, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital is blessed to return four starting lineman. This group is led by the bookends at tackle, Yodny Cajuste and Colton McKivitz. They bring experience, talent and size to the offensive line and the two of them will be challenged with protecting a quarterback who is a projecting first round draft pick and was the preseason Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Cajuste has seen action in 20 games with 19 starts, while McKivitz has 26 games with 23 starts. Their experience will be critical when team faces such vaunted players as TCU’s sack specialist and preseason Big 12 Defensive player of the year, Ben Banogu. The Mountaineer offensive line gave up 19 sacks in 2017, which tied for the second fewest in the Big 12. In addition to that, WVU gave up the second fewest tackles for loss in the country. All this and four returning starters points towards improved play for 2018. The running game struggled slightly in 2017 as WVU averaged only 150 yards per game. The ground game will be a point of emphasis for Spavital this season, as an improved run game will make the team more two dimensional, allowing for a more diverse playbook and more consistent offense.
Offensive tackle is at least the second most mentally challenging position on the team. The only position that is close and likely exceeds it in this regard, is quarterback. While centers are asked to identify what players the offense will initially block, it is the tackles that must make the quick in-game adjustments and decisions to combat defensive pressures. Tackle’s assignments tend to vary the most in run schemes, requiring more extensive study and forced in game adjustments. If you listen during a game you’ll hear the quarterback identify a linebacker pre-snap, shouting the number of the player who they’re using to scheme offensively against. The quarterback will do this each and every snap so the defense isn’t able to easily identify passing plays. The offensive center will then identify how many linebackers the offensive line and other offensive personal can block based on the opposing number of defenders. After this it is the tackle’s job to communicate how they will be blocked based on pre-snap alignment, and if the defense is showing a blitz or not. Having to do this in the few seconds before the snap and then execute the play is very difficult, and is why having experienced tackles is such an advantage.
Imagine it’s 3rd and long, you’re in an opposing school’s stadium where 80,000 fans are cheering as loud as they possibly can. Across from you is an All American defensive end, staring at you from barely a foot away, with the sole goal of sacking the quarterback that you’re so desperately trying to protect. Then as the ball is about to snap, a linebacker walks up to the line of scrimmage, and you spot the corner creeping towards you as well. You now have only a fraction of a second to make a decision on how to block the opposing defense alignment and even less time to communicate it to the rest of the offensive line so your team has a chance of completing a first down. You don’t know which, or if any, of the defenders are going to blitz but, you have to make a split second decision as the offensive line is relying upon you to evaluate the defense, decide whom to block, communicate it and then effectively execute your block. It can be similar to watching Jeopardy versus being on the show yourself. At home it’s easy to shout out the answers as you watch on your couch. If you’re on the show yourself it’s completely different, and there are no points for knowing the answer but buzzing in second. Playing offensive tackle is similar, you have to know the answer, and know it quickly. Mistakes cause sacks, and even worse, injuries to a quarterback. Following the 2017 season, no one in West Virginia has to be told how badly a season can be derailed when a starting quarterback is injured. This is the life of an offense tackle; they get little to no praise, are often only announced during games if they get a penalty, but the performance of the team often hangs upon their execution every play.
Yodny Cajuste measures in at 6’5,” 318 lbs and McKivitz at 6’7,” 307 lbs, giving the Mountaineers elite size at tackle, which is something that has alluded the program in previous years. The constant struggle to find offensive lineman with size and ability isn’t a new problem either. Bobby Bowden stated a few years back that one of the reasons he left Morgantown was because he didn’t think he could attract the type of elite level offensive lineman needed to compete for championships. Luckily enough for WVU they currently have two of these type players at tackle, and their rarity means that a solid argument can be made that after Grier, Cajuste and McKivitz might be the least replaceable players on the team.