MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Despite nagging injuries, West Virginia football’s offensive line is finding the expected success for which it pledged this offseason, no matter the combination of players.
“It’s a testament to [offensive line] coach [Matt] Moore and the guys up front, and those guys being able to plug and play,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “It’s next man up.”
Redshirt junior tackle Nick Malone has been the team’s de facto third tackle with Wyatt Milum missing time with an eye injury, and more recently, with right tackle Doug Nester going down with a leg injury. He made his first start at tackle in the Houston game with Milum out, and once the game started, there was little internal doubt abut his ability to play starting-caliber football.
“It clicks in your head,” he said. “The very first play when you grab somebody, you know.”
WVU did not allow any sacks that night at Houston.
The former walk-on-turned-scholarship player has been WVU’s swing tackle for the better part of the last three years, with most of his snaps coming on special teams. During that span, he’s hovered around the 300-pound mark after coming to WVU at 260 pounds.
Now, he is essentially the team’s sixth starting lineman. Maybe next year he’ll be in the top five, and earning a scholarship in the process was a wonderful luxury, but meaningful snaps were always the goal for Malone.
“[I knew] an offer might come down the road, but my goal was to play,” he said. “I feel like at this point, I’ve put enough work in and did everything that they wanted [with] their standards, and the [Houston] game proved that it worked, and I did what I set out to do.”
Long gone are the days of disappointment when Malone – a Morgantown High graduate – didn’t receive a scholarship offer from his hometown team. As are the days of pregame tailgates in the Blue Lot outside Milan Puskar Stadium. Now, he’s a part of the main attraction.
“My story kind of proved that [if] you keep working you get to the top eventually,” he said.
Redshirt junior guard Ja’Quay Hubbard’s story is a little different. Hubbard’s trajectory was not as straightforward as Malone’s. After starting most of the season at right tackle for WVU most 2022, Scott and Brown relegated Hubbard to reserve duty after he lost the position battle at right guard to fellow redshirt junior Brandon Yates.
Based on his demeanor and leadership abilities, he doesn’t look – or act – like someone who lost the starting job.
Hubbard is one of the most vocal leaders in the Mountaineer locker room. He frequently gives team-wide speeches on game days, and his disposition is overwhelmingly positive. Very few were surprised when he filled in seamlessly for injured left guard Tomas Rimac at multiple points this season.
“We really have seven guys that can start at any point, and just like you’ve seen throughout the season, both [Nick Malone and Ja’Quay Hubbard] have come in and haven’t missed a beat – neither one of them,” center Zach Frazier said. “They’ve done a great job.”
With Nester doubtful for Saturday’s game against BYU, it is likely that Malone will start at right tackle. As recently as last week, Brown elected to rotate Hubbard in at guard with Yates. WVU is also no stranger to running unbalanced sets with six offensive lineman – with Malone typically acting as the extra – on the line of scrimmage.
As long as there continue to be injuries, and as long as the two reserves keep rising to the occasion, the WVU offensive line will continue to be a puzzle for which they have all the pieces.
“I feel like the seven of us, we can plug and play anywhere and I don’t think there’s a drop-off,” Frazier said.