The shorthand football lingo for pass blocking is “pass pro,” as in pass protection.
For the first two games of West Virginia’s 2018 season, starting left tackle Yodny Cajuste and right tackle Connor McKivitz have looked like pass-pro pros.
Keeping quarterback Will Grier upright is crucial to achieving the twin goals of getting the Mountaineers to the Big 12 title game and getting Grier to New York City for the Heisman Trophy ceremony, and thus far WVU’s bookends have allowed both to remain plausible.
Grier has been sacked three times this season, but the film shows that none of them can be attributed to his tackles. Both of Tennessee’s sacks came on pressure up the middle, and the second was barely a sack at all. Grier already recognized that he had nothing available and was scrambling up the middle before getting tackled just short of the line of scrimmage.
Against Youngstown State, Grier himself was to blame for the lone Penguins sack. According to a stopwatch, Grier held the ball in the pocket for anywhere from 4.35-4.45 seconds before Youngstown’s Wes Thompson took him down. Anything longer than 3.5 seconds is a danger zone for a quarterback unless he’s already rolling out or finding some other path for potential escape.
McKivitz and Cajuste have been nearly identical in production. Both allowed two quarterback pressures against Tennessee and none against Youngstown State.
In McKivitz’s case, one of those pressures isn’t his fault, even though the man he was assigned to block ultimately got close to taking Grier down. Late in the second quarter against the Vols, the Mountaineers subbed in Isaiah Hardy to get a rep at right guard after Joe Brown allowed a sack on the prior play.
The results were arguably even worse.
Hardy was knocked flat on his back by Tennessee defensive tackle Alexis Johnson, and in the process tripped up McKivitz, allowing two Vols defenders access to Grier. Fortunately for the Mountaineers, Grier was able to escape them, wandering backwards more than 20 yards before weaving out-of-bounds just beyond the line of scrimmage thanks in part to a crushing block from Cajuste.
Though it’s partially a product of WVU’s spread attack, the coaching staff’s trust in the tackles is revealed by how little they are given help. In two games, Cajuste has had double-team help on two plays and McKivitz once.
Cajuste in particular has done a good job of recognizing blitzes and adjusting. Twice against the Vols, he recognized a defensive back coming on a blitz and adjusted from his assignment to pick it up.
On another play in the fourth quarter, Cajuste showed he has the strength to go with his play recognition. Tennessee defensive end Kyle Phillips initially beat Cajuste off the line of scrimmage, but Cajuste made an adjustment in the backfield to stuff Phillips and buy Grier enough time to find Trevon Wesco for a long first-down completion.
McKivitz has played every snap for the Mountaineers this season, while Cajuste has been subbed out late in both games to give reps to backup Kelby Wickline. Despite all those snaps, only two flags have been thrown on the tackles so far – a false start on Cajuste against Youngstown and a holding call on Cajuste vs. Tennessee.
The challenges of staying penalty-free and keeping Grier clean will increase considerably once the Mountaineers go on the road in conference play and communication becomes a challenge. But early returns show the veteran tackles are likely up to the task.