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2011-2012 WVU Football Season Preview- Defense

By Jude
2011/09/02

EDITOR'S NOTE- The Wemustignitethiscouch.com 2011-2012 WVU Football Season Preview continues with Dan and Jude's position-by-position evaluation of the defense. Click here for Part I, Jude's breakdown of the offense.


Following the departure of Rich Rodriguez to Michigan (and subsequent firing FROM Michigan), there has been much instability in the WVU football program from the offensive play calling to occasionally atrocious special teams. However, the one thing that has remained rock steady and as consistent as anything in college football has been Jeff Casteel’s 3-3-5 Mountaineer defense. Even though Dana Holgorsen was brought in to take over the team as head coach, at some point along the way, someone made a wise decision to keep Casteel and company in tact on the defensive side of the ball.

Athletic Director Oliver Luck and the WVU administration are certainly fully aware of this continued success, rightfully rewarding the defensive coaching staff with extensions and further financial security.

Now that any uncertainty of the defensive coaching staff is out of the way, there still lies ahead many challenges to a unit which lost 7 starters from last year. And not just any starters, but four NFL draft picks including defensive lineman Chris Nield, cornerback Brandon Hogan, and linebacker J.T. Thomas. That defense was absolutely special, and its accomplishments are best summarized in this wvillustrated.com article thusly:

"[WVU] finished the season as the 3rd best scoring defense in the nation, only allowing 13.5 points per game. They did not allow a team to score over 21 points in a game until the season finale against NC State. They were 2nd in the nation in rush defense with 86.5 yards per game allowed. The Mountaineers also got at the quarterback very often, recording 45 sacks. They finished 13th in the nation in pass yards allowed."

It's worth noting, however, that WVU still lost 4 games last season with the best defense seen in Morgantown in years, so Coach Casteel may be resting a little easier during this transition year due to the fact new Head Coach Dana Holgorsen is installing an offense that averages more points per game than Bill Stewart can wince per 60 minutes.




Do yourself a favor and mute this highlight package while watching the Mountaineer defense of a year ago light suckas up like a Christmas tree.


So in preparation for a new season with a host of new starters, here's a breakdown of the defensive side of the ball. While Mountaineer fans hope for an explosive new offense under Holgorsen, they'll need continued excellence from the defensive side if WVU will be ready to get back to competing at BCS Bowl-caliber level it once enjoyed:


Defensive line

A key question for the Mountaineer defense will be whether the defensive line can get down and do the dirty work necessary in the 3-3-5 stack. When I say dirty work, I’m talking hand down in the mud, er rubber beads, and take on 2 blockers in order to free up the rest of the playmakers on defense. Chris Neild and Scooter Berry made a living doing these less-than-glamorous duties.

In order for the 3-3-5 defense to succeed, the big boys up front must hold their own. Talented but troubled junior Jorge Wright will have to step into the very large hole left by Neild's departure. Wright weighs in at only 290 pounds (as compared to Neild's 320), so there will be a lighter presence in the middle. But Wright has been trying to learn from his predecessor as well:

“He [Neild] was here when we were training, and he gave me a few pointers about things here and there, things I wouldn’t have known without asking,” he said in this article from the Times WV. “I watch film on him all the time. He was an amazing nose guard, and now he’s an NFL nose guard. Anything I can take from him and incorporate into my game I will.”

Junior Josh Taylor has started in the past and will probably see some time in a rotation with Wright. Both must step into their own if the Mountaineers' run defense hopes to stay even close to their previous level of dominance.

There is some concern that the starting line of Wright, Miller, and Irvin, none of which weigh more than 300 pounds, might be too light to stop the run. Irvin acknowledges the criticism, responding thusly:

“People are going to say what they are going to say,” Irvin said in the previously-cited article from the Times WV. “We are on the lighter side than last year but we’re faster … much, much faster than last year. People will say what they want; it’s up to us to prove them wrong.”

Sophomore Will Clarke will also be worked into the interior of the line on occasion to provide some depth. For what it's worth, veteran defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich is impressed with Clarke. “I really like Will Clarke. I think he can be the next Neild – not a nose guard, but a great lineman – because he’s a worker. He can be that type of guy, a guy who shows up as a football player,” Kirelawich said in the previously-cited article from the Times WV.

The true area of strength for the Mountaineer defense will be their pass rush off the edge from seniors Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin.

Even though Irvin didn't start last year and appeared almost exclusively on 3rd downs, he still finished tied for second in the nation in sacks with 14.

Irvin will no longer just be a pass-rush specialist and will have the aid of Miller and junior college transfer Shaq Rowell on the outside. If the rest of the defensive line and 'backers can cause enough problems for the offensive line, look for Irvin to continue to embarrass tackles while attempting to exceed that incredible 14-sack season from a year ago. (That is, when he isn't double and tripled-teamed.)

Even though Irvin wasn’t fortunate enough to win a ”Herbie,” he has the ability to lead the nation in sacks, especially considering most teams will be tossing the rock all game trying to keep pace with whatever mad scientist plays Holgorsen is calling on offense.

While Irvin is more of a speed rusher, Julian Miller has the ability to play well both in the running and passing game. Miller had 54 tackles last year and piled up nine sacks of his own, so offensive lines really have to pick their poison between the two edge rushers for the Mountaineers.




Ask Maryland what they thought of Bruce Irvin last year.


Linebackers

Losing 2 linebackers and 3 defensive backs usually doesn’t bode well when you run a 3-3-5 alignment. Replacing J.T. Thomas won’t be easy, but returning redshirt senior Najee Goode and other newcomers including junior college transfer Josh Francis, senior Casey Vance, and sophomore Doug Rigg will be hoping to fill the void. If Casteel is interested in stealing wallets instead of forcing fumbles, he may look to bring back Bronko Busick, who was dismissed from the team earlier this year following his arrest for armed robbery.

Goode is the only returning starter at linebacker from a year ago, a monster of a man that posted 47 tackles in 2010 and provides the most experience in the middle of the field for the Mountaineer defense. But Goode understands that he needs to be the shepherd for the younger guys on the line with him:

"When you throw those guys in there, if they don't know what they're doing, I can tell them what they're doing," Goode said of his young teammates in this article from the DA. "For the most part they know, but even when they aren't sure about certain things I can tell them ‘look for this, look for that' and give them hints and cheats and they can go ahead and play with their natural ability."

Junior college transfer Josh Francis turned down offers from Oregon and Arkansas to play for the Mountaineers, and should see some time as a speedy pass-rusher that will join Miller and Irvin as a terrifying 3rd-down specialist.

Senior Casey Vance has some experience in the system at this point and saw a little playing time last year, registering 8 tackles.

Mountaineer redshirt freshman Jewone Snow, who took over Busick's reps at No. 2 middle linebacker behind Goode, certainly has the pedigree to be a great player as reported in this article from the Charleston Daily Mail, as he is the son of Garland Rivers, an All-America cornerback at Michigan (1983-86) and the nephew of former Michigan State and NFL linebacker Percy Snow, and former Michigan State and NBA guard Eric Snow.

Redshirt sophomore Tyler Anderson might also see some time as a solid, speedy tackler.




Action photo of Najee Goode.


Secondary

The secondary was the hardest hit by graduating starters from last season, losing key contributors like safeties Robert Sands and Sidney Glover and cornerback Brandon Hogan. Fortunately the Mountaineers can still count on Senior All-America Keith Tandy, who is as talented as any cornerback in the country.

Unfortunately, quarterbacks probably won't be looking at his side of the field very often. That will mean less experienced junior Brodrick Jenkins will have to step up on the other side of the field. Jenkins started two games last season and showed promise, but as compared to the combination of Hogan and Tandy, he'll definitely need to step his game up to keep the Mountaineers balanced in the secondary.

Sophomore Pat Miller will see plenty of time as well, and will hopefully not get torched to the extent that he did last year when I said rather loudly at a game-watching party, "Who the hell is P. Miller and why is he on the field?"

Senior Brantwon Bowser has seen plenty of playing time over the past two years and will back up Tandy, so the Mountaineers aren't short on depth at corner. Especially when adding in the possibility of freshman Ishmael Banks and Lawrence Smith, and true freshmen Avery Williams and Vance Roberts who are all very young, but also very athletic and very talented, and could all see playing time.

At spur safety, junior Terence Garvin provides a steady hand on the tiller, returning after leading the team in tackles last season with 76 tackles. (On a side note, one would think generally that if your safety is your leading tackler, you probably didn't have a very good season.)

Senior Eain Smith will try to fill the rather large shoes left by Robert Sands' departure at free safety. Smith has plenty of game-time experience and while he certainly isn't the physical presence that Sands was (who is?), he should be able to use his intelligence to keep opposing defenses honest. For his part, Smith understands that gelling as a unit is a process.

''We are coming along fine,'' said Smith in this article in the Wheeling Intelligencer. ''It is just a matter of time. It is important to understand what you are doing so we are learning to communicate. There is a high standard and we hold ourselves to that high standard. We can't, and won't, accept anything less.''

Sophomore Darwin Cook will start at the all-too-important role of bandit safety for the Mountaineers this year. Cook played in all of the Mountaineers' games last year and has impressed in offseason drills and scrimmages. He'll be backed up by freshmen Wes "Honky" Tonkery (sorry, I know I Bermaned that nickname) and Lucas Hern.




Keith Tandy is here to light you up and take your footballs away.


Wrap-Up

Although the WVU defense will take on a new look in many areas, they will be in good hands with Jeff Casteel and his loyal staff of assistants. Casteel is, for all intents and purposes, the head coach of this defense, and most Mountaineer fans are quite comfortable with that.

Casteel will need to earn his bump in salary by coaching up some new starters but will have the luxury of proven playmakers such as Irvin, Miller, and Tandy. If the newcomers fill in the gaps and the defense can continue to hold opponents to less than 23 points a game, then Oliver Luck may want to ensure this staff stays in Morgantown for a long, long time.
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