After allowing a Big 12-leading 40 sacks in 2021, it was clear to Neal Brown that his team had some work to do before 2022.
Pass protection goes beyond the five men on the offensive line, however. Some of WVU’s protection issues in 2021, Brown said, came from the skill positions.
“There’s multiple reasons for hits on the quarterback and sacks,” Brown said. “First can be the quarterback for holding the ball too long or not moving up in the pocket. Second that it doesn’t take into effect is if the running back missed an assignment or if he gets beat, and we had several of those last year, and the same thing when you have seven-man protection and the tight end gets beat, and we had several of those last year.”
Both the coaching staff and the players have made a concerted effort to rectify this area. WVU’s offensive line has worked all offseason to build chemistry, and they have so far earned a lot of praise. Outside of the line, the team has added new players like tight end Brian Polendey to help bolster the blocks up front as they await the return of Mike O’Laughlin.
Another crucial piece to rebuilding WVU’s pass protection lies in the backfield.
“That’s major, we’ve got to take care of the quarterback. That’s our first objective as a running back group, you’ve got to protect the ball, you’ve got to protect that quarterback,” said WVU running backs coach Chad Scott. “It’s hard as heck to win with your starting quarterback let alone the backup guy, so we’ve got to protect that guy at all costs and so that’s something that’s emphasized absolutely every single day.”
Tony Mathis Jr. will be WVU’s No. 1 running back come Sept. 1, and one of his biggest challenges will be to block for whoever is named the starting quarterback before the Backyard Brawl. Mathis is confident in his physical capabilities, but for him, the bigger challenge is knowing where to be.
“The schemes are a lot different in college. You know exactly who you’ve got in high school, so it’s just different knowing you you’ve got,” Mathis said. “But in pass protection, I’m a pretty strong guy so it ain’t that much of a change.”
Mathis is a redshirt sophomore this season but enters his fourth year with the program, so he has been fully immersed in WVU football for several years. The duo behind him, redshirt freshmen Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson, are still green to the college game, so this offseason has been crucial for their development.
All spring and summer, the running backs have focused on improving their pass protection, and Mathis said they are still working on it during camp. Running backs coach Chad Scott corroborated that and said that there is a tangible difference as a result of their work, especially Mathis and Johnson.
“Those top two guys have done a phenomenal job in that area, it’s just bringing the other guys along, so that’s really my focus,” Scott said. “Make sure those guys get their work and particularly throughout the day during practice and walkthroughs, taking advantage of those walkthroughs, to get those young guys some opportunity to see different looks and be able to recognize it.”