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Mike Casazza: WVU offensive line should not be issue in Big 12

MORGANTOWN - Every conversation about West Virginia's move to the Big 12 Conference, from when the invitation was extended the first time in October up until the final frosted Fishbowl is finished tonight, has at least mentioned the leap in the skill level on the nine other rosters.

Not even the head coach is immune.

"Everyone has skill, everyone has guys that can run," secondyear WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen said. "Tavon Austin plays fast. He's a great receiver. He runs real fast. There are guys out there who are just as fast as him - Baylor's got one."

The offenses are better. The quarterbacks are award winners. The receivers are professionals. The safeties can hit.

The corners cover. The linebackers can run. Six of the 10 teams are from the southwest, and four are from Texas, where football is somewhere between a lifestyle and an obsession and the competition, to say nothing of the conversation, occupies the entire year.

"From a recruiting standpoint, those guys play football from when they're in the first grade and a lot of football when they're in junior high, so when you get them, they're probably more game ready from a skill standpoint," Holgorsen said. "That's not from a talent standpoint. But from a skill standpoint, they're a little more ready."

There are so many high schools and so many players in Texas, but there are only so many colleges and scholarships. Later or, if you're a fan of WVU, sooner, the excess talent flows over the mountains and into gold and blue uniforms.

But that's hope reserved for the future when there is an immediate concern - and one that maybe recruiting fixes years from now. In the present, as No. 9 WVU (3-0) readies for its Big 12 debut in Saturday's noon home game against No. 25 Baylor (3-0) at Mountaineer Field and on FX, the focus is again on the offensive line.

Those Mountaineers conspired to get their Heisman Trophy quarterback sacked two times and hit too many other times. Nineteen called running plays earned 41 yards. Six either lost yards or gained none.

The long run was for eight yards and that waited until the fourth quarter.

In short, the performance was long on problems and the timing, one would think, couldn't be worse. Though dominant in the first game and still very effective in the second, WVU's offensive front was again ordinary against Maryland and refreshed the bad moments from 2011, when three starters were the same as the ones who start this season and one backup is now a starter.

Since the skill level is better in the Big 12, WVU is in trouble, right? Not quite. The Mountaineers believe they'll see no better lines during these next nine games than they did last season. "The thing about watching the Big 12 and the people who play there is the defensive line play is probably not as good as it is in the Big East," WVU defensive line coach Erik Slaughter said. "The linemen in the Big 12, with the exception of Oklahoma and Texas, aren't outstanding."

The Big East did have some outstanding outfits over the past several years, teams that produced 31 NFL Draft pick defensive linemen across the previous 10 drafts - and that includes a round zero in 2005 following the defections of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.

The Big 12, which was larger and deeper every one of those years, produced 52 defensive line draft picks. Three came from Baylor.

It again goes back to the spread offense and the style of high school and even college football in that part of the country. Big, burly defensive tackles and nose guards are rare.

There is an emphasis on sleeker players who can run to the ball and speed to the quarterback. Teams play three defensive linemen instead of four because it gives the defense one more person to rally to the ball.

The Big East draws from a different region and lands different players, but they also have different offenses that can make use of the mountainous men in the middle. Holgorsen spent nine years in the Big 12 and one in the Big East and recognized as much.

"We faced more good, quality defensive lines last year," he said.

"Granted, some of that was LSU and Clemson, but you're talking about a draft pick at UConn (San Diego's Kendall Reyes), a draft pick at Syracuse (New England's Chandler Jones), Cincinnati had a couple that were good (Denver's Derek Wolfe and Cleveland's John Hughes). I did not see a single difference from a defensive line standpoint in the two leagues."

LSU and Clemson are not Big 12 or Big East teams. The SEC's Tigers were thought to have the best defense, anchored by the best defensive front, in the country last year.

WVU didn't allow a sack and amassed 533 yards. The ACC's Tigers had two linemen drafted in the first three rounds, but allowed WVU a bowl record 70 points.

"Those were our two best games up front," WVU offensive line coach Bill Bedenbaugh said.

Bedenbaugh coached seven years in the Big 12 at Texas Tech as a graduate assistant, running backs coach and offensive line coach.

He followed that with four years in the Pac-12 before learning about the Big East last year.

"From the outside, I knew nothing about the Big East before I came in here and that league was better than what people on the outside want to give it credit for," he said.

"There was quality across the board with those defensive lines."

Now he's using that to school his linemen and send them into the Big 12 with a surge of confidence.

"I think the difference we'll see in the Big 12 is more of the true tackles and ends," right guard Jeff Braun said. "What I mean by that is, back in the Big East, they'd play a down safety. They'd play a linebacker as a linebacker and then have him go down and play a defensive end and a defensive end would play defensive tackle, which means you had smaller guys inside.

"We'll see bigger defensive tackles and defensive ends and more guys who are meant to play those positions. They're still going to be fast guys, but they'll have some size and height to them. And they'll have depth. They'll rotate a bunch of guys and there won't be much of a drop off."

 

 


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