By Cam Huffman
Ask any fan the key to a good football team, and you’re sure to get the typical answers — a good quarterback, a good running back, solid receivers. Some may even throw in a mention of defense.
But if you ask coaches the same question, 90 percent of them will respond with the same answer — a good offensive line.
“Offensive line is the most important position on your team,” said West Virginia University head coach Dana Holgorsen earlier this week. “I have said it for years. You have to get a bunch of good and capable guys.”
A good offensive line — most agree — starts with a good center.
That’s why so much attention is on that spot right now, as the Mountaineers participate in spring drills leading up to the April 20 Gold-Blue Game. Gone is Joe Madsen, a four-year starter at the position, who is now preparing for a shot at the NFL, leaving WVU searching for a replacement.
The top candidate entering the spring was senior Pat Eger, who played both guard and tackle last season. He had all the physical tools, but at the beginning his snaps flew all over the Mountaineer Field turf.
Madsen — or “Coach Madsen” as Holgorsen called him — was in Morgantown for practices a few days this week, and Holgorsen said his instruction proved to be a huge help for Eger, a 6-foot-6 Pleasant Hills, Pa., native.
“There was probably only 25 percent of the snaps in the first couple of days that were even fieldable,” said Holgorsen. “It was not good.
“What do you expect? You are moving two guys to center (sophomore Tyler Orlosky is also in the competition) that have never played center. They have really improved.”
Just when Eger looked as though he was ready to win the job, though, he left Tuesday’s practice with an ankle injury. First-year offensive line coach Ron Crook — who came back to his native West Virginia from Stanford — said it was not related to ankle surgery Eger had in the offseason, but he projected that the senior could miss a few weeks for precautionary reasons.
Crook doesn’t expect the injury to bother Eger in the long run, and the coach is taking a positive approach, trying to work in a few other bodies to get practice reps at the position.
Tony Matteo, a junior out of Manchester High School in Ohio, is starting to see some time there, and Crook indicated that Russell Haughton-James will move to the middle, as well.
Whoever moves to the top of the depth chart this spring will likely be pushed by junior college signee Stone Underwood this fall. The 6-foot-4, 285-pounder played center last season at Copiah Lincoln Junior College in Mississippi and was named to the NJCAA District 23 All-Star team.
He’ll get a chance to contribute right away.
“It is recruiting, which means we try and make the best decisions that we possibly can, but you really don’t know what you are going to get until they are here practicing,” said Holgorsen when asked about Underwood’s chances of winning the job. “We thought enough about Stone to recruit him as a center.”
Holgorsen explained that the starter is not the only concern.
“You’ve got to have two or three centers on your team,” he said. “It’s like the quarterback position — if you have two, you get nervous, so you really need to have three guys that can snap.
“We are trying to develop two guys that we feel good about and will add (Underwood) to the equation and let all three compete in the fall. Then we’ll make a decision about who is one, two and three.”
— E-mail: chuffman
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