photo by: Photo by Jared Serre
MORGANTOWN, W.Va — It is almost as old as America itself, the proverb that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” coined in an essay by Thomas Reid penned in 1789.
It has been accepted as fact ever since but here in West Virginia, the state university’s underdog football team is hoping to disprove it by being as strong as its strongest link in an opening day game against the powerful No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in State College in a game shown nationally on NBC.
In this case, and probably throughout this watershed year in the career of Coach Neal Brown, the Mountaineers’ strength lies in its offensive line, and it is upon that group that has dubbed itself “The Brotherhood” that it hopes to control the football, the game and the Nittany Lions.
It is no easy task, for Penn State not only has a powerful group of linemen on the offensive side of the ball with a pair of classic Penn State running backs, but it has a talented defense that Neal Brown says possesses no less than nine players who eventually will show up in the NFL draft.
It is upon the sizable shoulders of the Brotherhood — tackles Wyatt Milum and Doug Nester, guards Tomas Rimac and either Ja’Quay Hubbard or Michael Yates, and All-American center Zach Frazier — that the task rests.
You can’t miss “The Brotherhood” around the Puskar Center, They often set themselves off T-shirts that read “BROTHERHOOD” as a tribute to their closeness both professionally (you can say that now in college sports) and socially.
But if that doesn’t convince you, you need to look no further at the tag inside the T-shirt that reads XXL or XXXL or XXXXL.
“They are a tight-knit group,” Mike Moore, the offensive line guru who has been with Neal Brown since the beginning here, said. “They care for each other. They’ve got a brotherhood. You build that and they hold each other accountable.”
And, in this era of instant transfers, they also hold each other together.
“So, it’s not quite as easy to jump on the next train or the next offer whatever they got. I’m sure, with the world the way it is now, they all got phone calls in the offseason and offers.”
Far more emphasis has to be put on brotherhood in today’s world to effectively hook your own players. Recruiting no longer stops at signing day, but instead ends on graduation day. Their feelings toward each other have to be stronger than any NIL offer.
“We’re one of the closest groups, if not the closest, on the whole team,” Rimac, its newest member, said.
They really are one for all and all for one, if Charles Dumas will forgive the plagiarism. Rimac brought up a not-atypical get-together at the house he shares with Watt Milum and Bryce Biggs, having the entire offensive line over for a barbeque.
When asked how many hamburgers were consumed.
“A lot,” he answered with a knowing smile.
Let’s just say that Wendy’s would be pleased to move that much beef in a week.
This is mostly a group that has been together for a couple of years, although positions have been shuffled around to take advantage of needs and physical attributes. Even Frazier, in the beginning, played some at guard.
With continuity and talent comes production and it is production that Moore expects, even against Penn State.
“If we’re going to double-team the 3 (defensive line position), we expect movement,” he said. “We don’t hope for it like we have done in the past. We expect them to win one-on-one battles. We expect all five of them to win one-on-one battles. That’s come a long way since my first couple of years here.”
That first year, 2019, they might as well have asked for volunteers from the stands to surround future NFL tackle Colton McKivitz. The entire offense did not produce 1,000 yards rushing as a team. This year it could be two 1,000-yard rushers being the O-line, bringing back memories of Pat White, Steve Slaton, and Noel Devine working together.
The experience of the group allows for advanced coaching.
“What you do is you don’t start as a lower level 100 class,” Moore explained. “We’re now at a 300 level, a lot of these guys. We’re talking about not just asking ‘Who’s the Mike linebacker?’ We’re past that. We’re talking about linebacker leverage, D-line stances, we’re talking about having a heavy shade, having a light shade.
“We try to continue to build these guys on these 300-level classes and help them to the Masters level. You can get more advanced in your schemes and more advanced in your teaching.”
And, it works out, the offensive line also is among the most intelligent of players academically, something that is truly necessary with all the things he has to learn to play the position at a top level.
The Brotherhood has another aspect to it that has come to be really important and that can’t be overlooked.
“Having three guys from West Virginia is big,” Moore said, Brown having done a strong job of keeping homegrown talent in Morgantown.
The three are Frazier, Milum and Nester.
“Three really, really good players who love this state and love the people in this state and aren’t just looking to jump on the next bus or go to the highest bidder,” Moore stressed. “It’s nice to have those guys and they’re a tight-knit group.
“It shapes the whole room. You talk about those three guys and the pride they have playing here. Having those core guys in my room that work really, really hard, do things right and are accountable,” Moore went on. “The young guys who walk into the room, even though they may not be from here, they see that’s how you’re supposed to do things.
“That’s how you build a room, you get a bunch of guys all pulling in the same direction.”
And if they are strong enough, they just may be able to keep the weakest link from breaking.