Finally, with the first weekend off since early October and with just two games left on the schedule, this week was as decent a time as any to take stock on how far West Virginia University football has come and in what areas the biggest gains have been made.
Without a doubt, nearly by any statistical measurement, the Mountaineers are an improved football team.
But coming into the 2020 season, some areas were bigger points of emphasis than other.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the running game, where Mountaineer coach Neal Brown harped on the significance of taking strides as soon as the season ended a year ago.
So, with two games left, where is West Virginia?
Better. Undoubtedly. WVU ranks 75th in the country in rushing offense after ranking 128th in the category a year ago.
But on Tuesday during his weekly Zoom meetings, Brown said it’s still a work in progress, and that was exactly what he expected.
“I knew we weren’t going to get it completely fixed in a year’s time,” Brown said. “I thought we would make significant gains, which we have. I think to be at a championship level, we’ve got to continue that improvement. We’re not — and you can look at the statistics right now — we’re not at a championship level of running the football, but we are much improved.”
There are some interesting aspects inside the numbers, primarily with the yardage percentage per player. While the Mountaineers are 75th in team rushing at 156.88 yards per game, junior running back Leddie Brown is 16th in the country individually, averaging 112.12 yards. Leddie Brown has rushed for 897 yards, representing 71.5 percent of the Mountaineers’ rushing total of 1,255. That includes an injury-hampered game at Texas two weeks ago, when he rushed for just 47 yards on 15 carries, his worst yardage performance of the year.
To Neal Brown’s point about the need for improvement, however, WVU hasn’t rushed for less than 134 yards in its three wins and hasn’t gone for more than 91 in its three losses.
“We devoted a ton of time, really dating back to December of last year, all the way through the month of July really working on it,” Neal Brown said. “We put a huge emphasis on it and I think that work has paid off but I don’t think it’s a finished product. We still have work to do to take it to the next level.”
The good news for WVU is it will be largely the same cast of characters that tries to take the rushing offense to that next level next season.
Senior interior linemen Chase Behrndt and Michael Brown are scheduled depart, but they can still take the extra year of eligibility the NCAA has offered for fall and winter athletes. But they are the only two seniors playing a major role in the execution of the run game and, outside of wide receiver TJ Simmons, the offense as a whole.
On the flip side, the strides made in the running game this year has been with a largely young and learning set of linemen up front, several of whom have come in and out of the lineup. Behrndt missed the year’s first game while serving a one-game suspension, and sophomore starter James Gmiter missed a pair of games with COVID-19.
At tackle, opening-game starter Junior Uzebu is now in the transfer portal. John Hughes and Briason Mays have both been in and out and are dealing with injury issues. Freshman Parker Moorer saw his first significant action on Saturday against TCU and he’s hardly the only freshman to play a significant role. Zach Frazier, a true freshman who was thrust into the starting lineup at center while Behrndt was out in the opener, has been a starter in every game while redshirt freshman Brandon Yates has seemed to solidify things at left tackle.
With that much youth and that many moving parts up front, the running game’s improvement is even more encouraging when considering the experience and game minutes that younger player have and are earning this season.
“For those three young guys — Zach Frazier, Brandon Yates, Parker Moorer — the thing all three of those guys have in common is that they love football and it’s really, really important,” Neal Brown said. “And you say, ‘Well, isn’t that obvious?’ No, no.
“I wish that was the case. I wish every scholarship player on our team was eaten up with football and they were thinking about it when they’re not here, but honestly that’s just not the case. But those three guys, it’s really important to them, from a preparation standpoint, they work at it, they watch their opponents, they take coaching and I think that gives you a real chance. I’m excited about them. I think we’ve got to continue to grow them, they’re going to be in our program for a long time developing.”