A burning question for the Mountaineers as they prepare to open a new season: will they be able to move the ball more effectively on the ground?
During his first game week video conference of the fall, Neal Brown answered that question with three words.
“We better be,” the head coach said Tuesday.
West Virginia’s ground game has been under construction all offseason after averaging 73 yards per game, one of the worst outputs by any Division I team in 2019.
New offensive coordinator Gerad Parker has been tasked with finding a solution, and he realizes West Virginia’s offense will only be successful if it can successfully move the ball on the ground. Even though he’s a wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator by nature, he said he has been “diving in” to the run game at WVU.
“We know we have to improve together in order to get where we want to go offensively and as a football team, we have to run it better,” Parker said.
As Parker heads West Virginia’s efforts to reestablish the run, he said he’s leaning on an experience he had in 2016 at Purdue. That season, he was named the interim head coach of a team that admittedly struggled to run the football, and he had to find the solution.
“As we do this together, we’ve got to find ways to get the ball handed off and gain yards, and that can be several different ways and look several different ways to the defense, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to put the ball on the perimeter and make the decisions easier for our quarterback at times, and then find ways to throw it,” Parker said.
A key to the improvement the Mountaineers seek is the offensive line, which lost three key players from last season, including NFL draft pick Colton McKivitz, the top lineman in the Big 12 in 2019.
Starting left guard James Gmiter said the returning players within that unit have a much better mentality, and he thinks they benefitted from offseason video sessions with offensive line coach Matt Moore.
“I definitely realized our struggles last year running the ball, but I really believe that this offseason, our buy-in from just our group in general is a lot higher than it was last year,” Gmiter said. “We had some guys last year that kind of just were there, but this year we have no egos. We have a really good group, and our entire starting line all the way back to our third strings have really put in a lot of work this offseason to improve.”
It has been a challenge for the coaching staff, Parker said, to develop West Virginia’s rushing attack, but there are signs of improvement.
“You can give credit to our guys. They’ve owned the run game, owned our fits. We’ve developed a mentality that we believe the entire state of West Virginia and our fans are gonna really enjoy,” Parker said. “We still have a ways to go, as everyone does. We’ve still got improvements to make, but we’ve made the right steps. Now the guys need to go out and do it and gain some confidence running the football.”
West Virginia opens the 2020 season Saturday at noon against Eastern Kentucky.