In more than 125 years of Mountaineer football, the state of West Virginia has generally lacked a great deal of Division I high school talent. The Mountaineers have had to constantly recruit the surrounding areas and rely heavily on pipelines into Florida and Georgia.
Within the past five years, though, West Virginia has started to produce some serious talent. Recruiting services like Rivals and 247sports have noticed, rating several of the state’s best prospects highly. The WVU coaching staff has done a solid job of keeping this new fountain of talent inside the borders of the Mountain State.
Much of that in-state recruiting success belongs to Defensive Coordinator Tony Gibson, who grew up in Van, West Virginia. Population: 211.
Gibson, who is increasingly being recognized for his elite talents as both a recruiter and coordinator, fields a defense that prides itself on being a physical, blue-collar group. Much like his nationally celebrated counterpart, Bud Foster, Gibson’s approach to defense is less about flashiness and more about work ethic.
“Growing up in Boone County, West Virginia, it taught you blue-collar mentality and how to work,” Gibson told West Virginia Illustrated in 2016. “People weren’t afraid to work.”
It’s easy to see the parallels between Gibson’s Wild & Wonderful upbringing and the ruggedness his defensive units show. Gibson preaches toughness, but he does so with an honest, authentic approach.
Whatever secret sauce Gibson has injected into the Mountaineer defense over the last three seasons, it’s been undeniably successful. West Virginia’s defensive units during the heart of the Gibson Era have been a marked improvement over the Mountaineers’ first few cracks at a Big 12 defense. Injuries and turnover may have limited the unit’s success in 2017, but in ’15 and ’16, Gibson’s groups ranked Top-3 in the league in scoring defense, total defense and turnover margin.
From 2012-14, during West Virginia’s first three seasons in the Big 12, the Mountaineers ranked in the Top 5 of the conference in any of those stats only once — they ranked second in turnover margin in 2012, during the Geno/Stedman/Tavon senior season. In every other instance, they were below average across the board.
Gibson’s success isn’t just limited to numbers and stats. West Virginia has produced three First-Team All-Conference defenders in the last three years, all of whom were drafted into the NFL. Compare that to just one — Karl Joseph, during his senior year — from 2012-14. Gibson’s handiwork is all over personnel selection and development.
So yes, Gibson’s blueprint is working, and he wants the individual pieces to be West Virginia-made, when possible. In a 2017 interview with WV Metro News about Bridgeport product Dylan Tonkery, Gibson articulated exactly why West Virginia natives bring the perfect blend of effort and energy.
“He’s athletic and he works,” Gibby said, referencing Tonkery and the West Virginia work ethic yet again. “When he puts that W-V on the side of his helmet and on his chest, it’s going to mean a whole lot more to him than some of the other guys.”
In another interview with the Raspy Voice Kids, Gibson went into more detail about what it means for him — a kid from West Virginia — to coach on the sidelines in Morgantown.
“It’s a dream come true for me and my family,” Gibson said. “To be able to run out on Mountaineer Field just means so much. To come out to those fans and see that Flying WV come out of the tunnel, I get tears in my eyes and goosebumps every time. There’s no feeling like it.”
Gibson feels the gold rush in his blood, and part of his legacy as West Virginia’s defensive coordinator is his desire to reinforce that in-state pride in other local products. Defensive lineman Reese Donahue (Cabell Midland-Jr.) and Darius Stills (Fairmont Senior-So.) are both slated to start Week 1 versus Tennessee; Tonkery (Bridgeport-r-So.) and cornerback Derrek Pitts Jr. (South Charleston-So.) are also expected to start. Redshirt junior safety Deamonte Lindsay (Martinsburg) and true freshman DL Dante Stills should see valuable time as well.
Like coaches from other schools, Gibson has done his best to put up a fence around the state. His latest effort — the beginnings of the Class of 2019 — should be considered an unmitigated success, with WVU already having snared three of the state’s top prospects. Martinsburg linebacker Dewayne Grantham committed first, back in January. He was followed by Capital safety Kerry Martin and University linebacker/safety Amir Richardson.
Grantham, Martin and Richardson will form the core of another strong in-state recruiting class. Assuming there are no decommits, it’ll be the third time in four years that West Virginia’s incoming class will feature three or more targeted in-state recruits. That’s the Gibson Effect.
Tony Gibson might not be the first coach to emphasize the selection and development of in-state prospects, but he’s certainly doing it as well as any other coach in the history of West Virginia football. As long as the country roads keep pointing toward Morgantown, Gibson and his Dawgs will keep building a defense that fans can be proud of. In more ways than one, they’re West Virginia’s own.