MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Tight end Mike O’Laughlin has been West Virginia’s feature tight end since he made the switch to the position as a redshirt freshman in 2019.
That has been the case even with O’Laughlin being limited to just 14 of the 23 games the Mountaineers have played since the start of the COVID-19-shortened 2020 season.
“Mike O,” as he’s known throughout the locker room, was limited to just five games last year, missing the final six games of the season due to a knee injury he sustained on October 23 against TCU.
After missing all of WVU’s spring workouts, the redshirt junior has been diligently working his way back onto the field in fall camp, and he’s on track to put on the pads once again for what is arguably West Virginia’s most important game of the season.
“He practiced with the team. We feel confident that he’ll be ready for week one,” head coach Neal Brown said Monday.
That confidence is a marked improvement from Brown feeling “cautiously optimistic” about O’Laughlin’s status on Aug. 1.
While the tight end hasn’t been on the field much since suffering the season-ending injury in Fort Worth, tight ends coach Sean Reagan believes there is still time for O’Laughlin to mesh with the offense prior to kickoff on Sept. 1.
“He went full-go (on Sunday), he got some 11-on-11 work in,” Reagan said. “Mike O’s a good player. We’ve still got what, 10 days left, so he’s got plenty of time to get into the groove of it. He got cleared. The big thing is just going to be at the conditioning level, how much he can go. But I anticipate him playing and playing enough.”
O’laughlin’s presence on the field is an important one for West Virginia. Reagan called him a dual-threat, because of his blocking and pass-catching abilities.
The Glen Ellyn, Illinois native averaged 9.1 yards per catch in 2020 and averaged a career-best 2.2 receptions per game last season. As a team, West Virginia averaged 126.6 rushing yards per game during the five contests O’Laughlin played in last year. That was slightly above the team’s season average.
“Mike O, he gives us a little bit more freedom: spread ’em out, in the box – if he can play,” said Reagan.
O’Laughlin has spent much of the offseason working with WVU strength and conditioning coach Mike Joseph. While he hasn’t participated in many live drills, his workload has progressively increased since fall camp got underway, according to coaches.
It’s still not a guarantee he will be ready to play against Pitt at Acrisure Stadium, though his progress is noteworthy.
“He’s looked good. I mean, he moved around pretty good (Sunday),” Reagan, who complimented his work with Joseph and the strength staff, said. “I’m excited where he’s at.”
O’Laughlin spoke last October about the frustration he felt, and the work he put forth in 2021 to return from an offseason injury he sustained. The injury caused him to miss the first two games of the regular season.
“Just getting your football legs underneath you, because that is a real thing,” the tight end said at the time. “But once I had a few practices under my belt, I kind of got back in the rhythm and the flow of things.”
When O’Laughlin met with the media on October 5 – just three days after tallying a career-high five catches against Texas Tech – he had no way of knowing his season would end because of another injury 18 days later.
At the time, it appeared that the tight end was just “scratching the surface” of his on-field potential.
He described the act of regaining his “football legs” as not only readjusting used to the speed and the contact of the game of football, but also remembering where to look, and the critical details that make up the finer points that can decide the outcome of the game.
“You’ve got to be aware of those little details and be aware of that,” he said.
O’Laughlin is going through the same process, again, now. This time around, though, he is working to regain his football legs while also learning a new offense and catching footballs from up to four different quarterbacks, any of whom could be throwing the football in his direction in Week One.
That is if he’s on the field, a place O’Laughlin has been longing to get back to consistently since hauling in the only touchdown grab of his career in the Liberty Bowl two seasons ago.