MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – When WVU first hired Graham Harrell as its offensive coordinator, many had questions about the type of offense he would run, given the system he played in as a quarterback at Texas Tech, as well as the coaching tree he cut his teeth in as he ascended the coaching ranks beginning in 2014.
Among the questions asked was how Harrell would utilize the tight end position.
Seemingly, Harrell grew more comfortable using tight ends in his third and final season as the offensive coordinator at USC.
In his first two years with the Trojans, USC tight ends combined for 26 catches, just over 200 receiving yards, and three receiving touchdowns. In 2021, that production blossomed as five different tight ends caught at least seven passes. In all, 56 catches, 647 receiving yards, and four touchdowns came from the tight end position for Harrell’s offense.
So, what does that mean for West Virginia’s tight ends room? In a way, it depends on the personnel that’s available to him.
“Mike O, he gives us a little bit more freedom – spread ’em out, in the box, things like that – if he can play,” offensive coordinator Sean Reagan said earlier this week.
Lead tight end Mike O’Laughlin is working his way back from a season-ending injury suffered last October. While the expectation from the coaching staff is that he will be ready to go for WVU’s season-opener on Sept. 1, there is no guarantee.
Behind him is transfer redshirt senior Brian Polendey, who came to WVU after two seasons at Colorado State. While Polendey is one of the only players on West Virginia’s current roster that has previously faced Pitt on the gridiron, he came to Morgantown with a well-earned reputation as a blocking tight end.
Under the tutelage of Reagan, Harrell, and the Mountaineer coaching staff, that reputation may no longer be accurate.
“Funny story: we keep pass stats from the spring. I think he had a catch percentage of 40 percent coming out of spring ball. Coming out of fall camp, he’s 100 percent,” said Reagan. “He really worked hard at that over the summer, and in the offseason. I think he caught around 300 balls a week.”
After O’Laughlin and Polendey, there is limited collegiate experience in the tight end room.
The only other players listed as tight ends on the roster that have past playing experience are Treylan Davis and Victor Wikstrom.
Davis, who Reagan said could be the most-improved player in the tight end room, saw 29 snaps last season for the Mountaineers, most of which came on special teams.
Also in the position group is former Spring Valley High School standout Corbin Page, the No. 1 high school recruit in the state of West Virginia in 2022. While being listed as 6-feet 5-inches and 238 pounds as a true freshman, his position coach feels some physical growth is needed before Page can make an in-game impact for the Mountaineers.
“He’s got to put some weight on, I’ll say that. He’s got to get bigger and stronger in the weight room,” said Reagan. “He’s athletic. The kid can make plays in the pass game. But, to play tight end at this level, he’s got to put on weight and he’s just got to get stronger.”
Reagan said that for the first time since he joined the Mountaineers in 2019, he feels they could play three-deep at the position if needed.
When it comes to the top-two tight ends on the depth chart, Reagan described O’Laughlin as more of a dual-threat tight end compared to Polendey. O’Laughlin originally came to WVU as a wideout but successfully made the switch to tight end in 2019.
Ideally, given Polendey’s run-blocking ability and O’Laughlin’s pass-catching ability, it’s a tag team duo that could give opposing defenses fits.
“Of course, if you can get to a point where you put [Polendey] and Mike in the game at the same time, you got a pretty good 12 personnel set that you can be versatile in,” said Reagan.
One area that Harrell’s offenses have consistently excelled in is on third downs. Last year, his Trojans offense ranked No. 20 in the country in third-down conversion rate. It was the second time in his three seasons at USC that the offense ranked inside the top 25 in the statistic.
Never in his three years at USC did Harrell’s offense convert on third down at less than a 43.5 percent clip.
While wide receivers like Sam James and Bryce Ford-Wheaton, running back Tony Mathis Jr, and others will be asked to make plays on third down, tight ends such as O’laughlin and Polendey figure to play a critical role, as well.