Happy first day of spring to all of you.
This is the season of new beginnings for you, for me and for West Virginia football. The Mountaineers logged-in their first official practice on Tuesday and questions abound for the first chapter in the Neal Brown era. Of all the systemic overhauls West Virginia is currently underdoing, perhaps none are more drastic than on the defensive side of the ball. Vic Koenning and his staff are charged with reinvigorating an often porous West Virginia defense by implementing a front-heavy 4-2-5 scheme. Let’s be clear: the task ahead for this staff is not an easy one. Creating an effective pass rush, stopping the run, bottling up mobile quarterbacks and quelling the deep pass are just a few of the items on Koenning and co.’s checklist. But of all the good storylines during spring camp that concern the Mountaineers defense, these three are probably the biggest ones to keep tabs on:
Will a dominant pass rush emerge? There were flashes, here and there, over the last decade of Mountaineers defenders wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. David Long, Jr., Bruce Irvin and Shaq Riddick are a few of the stalwarts that managed to gain some traction out along the edges. However, under the 3-3-5 that Tony Gibson favored, West Virginia never consistently disrupted opposing quarterbacks and there were ripple effects aplenty. The Mountaineers front under Gibson was regularly pushed back off the ball by larger offensive linemen and the linebackers were never able to infiltrate gaps and run lanes the way the defense demanded. By-and-large, this resulted Big 12 offenses gashing the Mountaineers secondary for big plays despite West Virginia consistently featuring pro-worthy talent in the secondary. Simply put, it all starts up front.
There is good news, though. first year defensive line coach Jordan Lesley inherits an experienced core of down linemen including Reese Donahue, the Stills brothers Darius and Dante, JUCO pledge Taijh Alston and recently converted edge specialist Quandarius Qualls. Backing them is a linebacker corps that is largely unproven yet loaded with potential which is set to include former blue-chipper Brendan Ferns, veterans Dylan Tonkery and Shea Campbell, Alabama transfer VanDarius Cowan, Zach Sandwisch and Adam Hensley. There’s depth, especially at linebacker, and there are more than a few talented players lurking in the secondary who have played significant downs during their time in Morgantown. Lesley, who followed Neal Brown from Troy, has made it no secret that his D-linemen aren’t merely trotted out there to absorb blocks. This new defensive look will scheme to get the guys up front far more involved in the actual pass rush, the kind that Gibson’s guys rarely registered in, statistically speaking. It’s a drastic change, but inarguably a needed one for the Mountaineers and should help to immediately impact their ability to force opposing offenses out of their comfort zone. Keep a particular eye on Qualls and Cowan, both athletically-charged players looking to prove themselves for different reasons. Up front, it’s a Stills world and everyone else is just living in it. Dante, in particular, has a chance to truly emerge as the WV-born superstar that many up to this point have pegged him to be.
The D-line could sure use a wildcard to emerge, perhaps in redshirt senior Brenon Thrift or junior Jeffery Pooler, veteran players who have yet to contribute meaningful downs. If Lesley can create some alchemy between Stills and Donahue and get some momentum out of a third player, specifically a sort of-project like Qualls, this could be a spring forward for defensive line bearing several question marks.
Who will emerge from a deep West Virginia secondary? Life and death in the Big 12 is dealt in the air, as everyone knows. No secondary unit across the conference is spared the relentless assault that is a built-in component of going up against the likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech every year. However the Mountaineers have some serious hardware at their disposal heading into 2019.
Josh Norwood, Keith Washington and Hakeem Bailey, all redshirt seniors possessing a wealth of experience are back manning the corner positions. Anchoring them at the safety spots are standout Kenny Robinson, senior Jovanni Stewart and in-state star and recently-moved Derrek Pitts. Beyond that core group, however, are two intriguing names that could drastically elevate this unit in sophomore Kwantel Raines and recent roster addition and former LSU-pledge Dreshun Miller. Raines arrived last season by way of football factory Alquippa, PA and saw only brief action in West Virginia’s bowl loss to Syracuse. But Raines, a former ESPN300 and Rivals250 prospect, is a 6’3″, 208 pound athlete that has superstar potential written all over him. Miller, who passes the eye test in similar fashion to former WVU standout and current Philadelphia Eagle Rasul Douglas, arrived with a great deal of fanfare and has done nothing but impress in his brief time with the program. It should be fun to watch how this all plays out play out under the eye of former Mountaineer star Jahmile Addae, who was finally courted back to Morgantown since beginning his coaching career with Michigan in 2007. The Mountaineers under Koenning, similar to Gibson’s tenure, will feature five secondary players between two corners, two safeties and two flex/hybrid positions called the ‘cat’ and the ‘spear’ that will blend different aspects of outside linebacker and safety as-needed.
There are other fringe players, veterans like Jordan Adams and Sean Mahone that can, should and probably will contribute, especially to keep the top-end of the unit fresh. Other than running back, these are likely the deepest and most talent-rich position groups on the roster and should feature plenty of competitions that will play out well into fall camp. Don’t be surprised if Miller snakes a corner spot from one of the returning seniors and don’t be surprised to see Stewart and Raines rove through a number of different looks across the defense. At worst, this is a unit that will be just good in 2019 and, at best, collectively exceptional. We’ll soon find out which is the more likely outcome.
Can LB’s avoid the injury bug?
No amount of coaching can curtail to infamous injury bug. As we all know, West Virginia has been bitten more than once in recent years, with linebacker perhaps the most maligned out of all the units. In the past three seasons, Brendan Ferns, Charlie Benton, Quandarius Qualls and Dylan Tonkery have all sustained one thing or another that’s earned them unwelcome respite on the sideline. The good news is that between Al Pogue and Blake Seiler, who will coach the inside and outside linebackers respectively, there is some promising talent on deck for them to mold. Ferns, the former Army All-American, has now had to rehab two significant knee injuries during his career and looks to finally be healthy enough to make good on his considerable potential. Charlie Benton, a JUCO product from last year’s recruiting cycle, generated a lot of positive buzz until suffering a season-ending injury in last year’s win over Tennessee and, while he’ll be held out of spring camp and won’t get back into the mix of things until fall, will be provide immediate boost on the outside for coach Pogue. In addition, Tonkery, a program legacy who has played above and beyond expectation in stretches, should also be full-go and will provide a strong presence in the middle.
If there’s bad news, it’s that David Long, Jr. is no longer here to do basically everything. Moreover, West Virginia can’t afford additional injuries at linebacker. Can. Not. Happen.
This isn’t a particularly deep position group and there are few headliners here going into spring camp. While that should make the competition for the different LB spots, it should also prove to be a test right out of the gate as Vic Koenning has gone on record that contact periods will be full, every day. Some of you may remember that under Holgorsen, West Virginia was rather limited in the number of days it elected to practice at full speed in full gear. This is a different program. Without a stalwart like Long, Jr.
Hopefully, a core group of presumptive starters separate themselves going into the fall, preferably with Ferns and Tonkery leading from the front. It would also be a huge boost if Alabama transfer and monster athlete VanDarius Cowan can find his role within the unit and flaunt some of the pedigree that landed him a scholarship in Tuscaloosa. All of that, along with a healthy Benton, might be enough to galvanize LB corps that desperately needs to rebound from and up and down 2018.