Depending on who you ask, West Virginia’s linebacker corps is either the most solid part of the 2017 defense or its weakest link. The linebackers are in a unique place as Tony Gibson not only leads the entire defense but is also its position coach. Gibson’s DAWGS will be entering their second “rebuilding” year in a row, and are hoping to capitalize on last season’s success.
Gibson is tasked with replacing main cogs Justin Arndt and Sean Walters. Arndt, one of the leaders of the 2016 defense, will be especially tough to replace after leading the team in tackles (84). Despite losing a few pieces, there will be a lot of talent returning.
Al-Rasheed Benton is primed to start at the Mike linebacker position once again. Benton earned a starting position last season and shined in his role. He finished second on the team in tackles with 80 and is looking to take on a leadership role in Gibson’s defense as a senior. Provided he stays healthy, he will prove to be just that. His backups will include Hodari Christian and Brendan Ferns. Christian is a junior who saw action in 9 games last season, and 8 the year prior. Ferns is a highly touted prospect who rose to back up status last year before tearing his ACL. He appears to be making a full recovery and should see starter’s minutes a few weeks into the season.
Replacing Arndt at the Sam position may prove to be difficult for Gibson, but Xavier Preston appears ready to take over. Preston, a senior, has played in 32 games during his career. While seeing a lot of action on special teams, he proved last year to be a solid backup. Preston hasn’t claimed a starting position in his three years as a Mountaineer, but his experience in the system will prove vital. If he’s able to firmly claim the starting position, he could be a stalwart for this defense. Expect red shirt freshman Zach Sandwisch and sophomore Adam Hensley, who saw the field during a few games last season, to make a push for playing time as well.
The biggest question at linebacker may come at the Will position. The presumed starter, David Long, is reported to have suffered a meniscus tear in June. Early reports are that Long will miss the first month of the 2017 season. This will give redshirt freshman Dylan Tonkery a chance to prove himself. Also at the position is JUCO transfer Quondarius Qualls, who will be looking to make an impact early. If Long, however, is able to recover by the TCU game on October 7, when he is expected to return, the position will be in good shape.
All in all, while suffering some losses from last season’s stellar team, this years group of linebackers appears to be in a good position to make some waves of their own.