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WVU football: Lineman provides depth, new wrinkle at tight end

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- If you want to witness the evolution of West Virginia Coach Dana Holgorsen in 2013, you look, of course, at his offense.

You see more of the quarterback under center than before and more of the sets using three running backs. You see a coach juggling receivers, working three quarterbacks and letting the running game lead the Mountaineers to success.

And you haven't seen the best illustration of exactly what Holgorsen is doing this season.

That is both odd and understandable. It is odd because the personification of this philosophical shift, if only for this season, or this stage of this season, is hard to miss at 6-foot-5 and 310 pounds.

Yet it's understandable because he is, for now, the rather anonymous Russell Haughton-James.

He played but a few plays in a few games in 2012 -- "a sprinkling," as he put it -- and he only played four snaps Saturday against the Oklahoma. Where and how the sophomore offensive lineman from Plantation, Fla., was used speaks volumes, if even in a low volume, about these Mountaineers, He was a tight end, barely a week into his new position and his new No. 89 jersey with his new name across the back: H-James.

How very A-Rod, C-Webb, D-Wade and T-Mac of the equipment manager.

"I like it," H-James said. "It sounds cool."

Consider this trend from Holgorsen since arriving before the 2011 season. His first team had Tyler Urban as the only tight end body. Urban was an inside receiver and basically never played tight end.

Holgorsen recruited a tight end type in Will Johnson, who has since left the team, in the 2012 recruiting class, and the Mountaineers developed Cody Clay into an invaluable tight end, fullback and inside receiver hybrid last season.

This preseason, the same Holgorsen who has delivered fame and wealth to quarterbacks and receiver called Clay the team's best player.

Cabell Midland's Elijah Wellman was signed in the 2013 recruiting class, but the Mountaineers continued to look for bodies on their own roster. After Johnson left, Holgorsen brought Garrett Hope from linebacker to the position. He's played in both games. H-James was merely the next name to fill a role in Holgorsen's next revelation.

"We didn't want to run a two-tight end set without a third option," Holgorsen said, somewhat fascinatingly when you think about how far this has come. "We have Cody Clay, we have Garrett Hope. If something were to happen to one of those guys, what's your alternative?"

Stop. Holgorsen is, for real, talking about the necessity of a third-string tight end.

Proceed.

"Russell is a backup guard," he said. "He's our eighth lineman, but he's athletic enough to where he can handle that on the edge, and he did a decent job."

H-James played four snaps and was given a grade of 75 because he did his job on three out of his four plays.

"I was kind of bullying No.

19," he said. "He was a smaller guy, but once I got my hands on him, I was OK."

No. 19 is Oklahoma's speedy outside linebacker, Eric Striker. He had five tackles and one tackle for a loss against WVU. On the one play where the coaches feel like H-James didn't do his job, Striker sped around the corner.

"He didn't do anything on that play," H-James said.

H-James didn't do much in the game, truth be told. He was on the sideline for 61 plays, but he took pride and solace in the knowledge he'd been practicing with a purpose during the week.

He might not be used again in Saturday's noon Root Sports game against Georgia State at Mountaineer Field, but a lowly opponent like the Panthers (0-2) might be the perfect proving ground for a player like H-James and all the other players the Mountaineers (1-1) hope to see take control of a role or a position.

"That's what it's all about," he said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to help the team. I know I'm a little bit lighter than most of the linemen. I might not be ready to be inside right now in the coaches' eyes, but I feel like I can get on the field and do my job to the best of my ability."

Playing beats watching. H-James played a little in the first four games last season, but tore the MCL and retinaculum in his right knee and sat out the remainder of the season. He fell behind his teammates, and he knew it, which was what made him grateful for the opportunity at tight end.

He learned quickly life is much different packed inside at guard.

"I felt like I was on an island out there (Saturday)," he said. "As soon as I took my first step, though, I felt like I was good. I engaged. The jitters went away. I feel a little bit more comfortable doing this because I know he can only beat me with speed. They're kind of one-dimensional."

For the time being, so, too, is James. There are no pass plays for the tight end in the packages he's in -- for now.

"I don't know if they're planning on doing it," he said, "but if the opportunity comes to me, I'm going to catch the ball."


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