West Virginia is once again using a three-man defensive front this year, but what the D-linemen are being asked to do now is slightly different than what they were being asked to do in the old scheme they were playing.
Defensive line coach Erik Slaughter explains.
"We're not the true odd front like they were here with a zero, head-up nose,” he said last week. “We're shaded techniques. Although we're a 3-4, we're using a 4-3 principle with the nose playing a G (gap) or a shade and you're playing a three-technique or a four-technique with the tackle, so it's different from that aspect where you don't have to have a burly guy in there to hold the point like a zero nose. These guys can be a little smaller in there playing the shade technique in more of an attacking type style."
In layman’s terms, what that basically means is that the defensive linemen now will be angling and shading more instead of lining head-up across from the guard, the tackle or the center. Pre-snap movement will be important, so having athletic linemen will be a big part of the equation in this new penetrating style in the years to come.
"We're moving a lot so athleticism is important to be able to get on and off blocks and move your feet on zone blocking,” Slaughter said. “It's not a deal where you have to be a huge guy - you want to be big - don't get me wrong, we don't want to line up with anybody undersized - but you don't have to have the guy who just holds the point in the two gaps at nose guard in this defense."
Because West Virginia typically hasn’t had a bunch of big monsters up front anyway, the fear in the past has always been facing those big, physical teams that line up with two tight ends and a fullback and try and pound the football down your throat. Those teams have had some success against the Mountaineers in the past, especially if the offense is not scoring a lot of points and teams are not forced to chase them.
Slaughter says stopping the power game is always going to be a part of football even though teams today are relying on it less frequently.
“You’ve got to stop the run,” Slaughter said. “If you don’t stop the run you’re not going to win. You can do that with size and then you can do that by loading the box and doing different things. The name of the game is getting off blocks. You don’t want guys who are magnets and stay with blocks, so athleticism in there to me is a premium in getting on and off blocks.”
What West Virginia can expect in the Big 12 this year is a lot of one-back sets and a lot of passing. Therefore, quicker, more agile defensive linemen are going to be needed to get pressure on the quarterback and handle faster-tempo attacks.
“In the Big 12 you’re going to see a lot of 10-personnel, which is one back and no tight end, and 11-personnel, which is one back and one tight end, and it’s going to be a lot of pass, a lot of tempo, and a lot of quick-strike offenses,” said Slaughter.
Slaughter said he would like to have at least six or seven defensive linemen ready to go by the opener, and that’s what he is working toward right now.
“I like our guys,” he said. “I like the effort they give every day and we’re going to fight with them and I know they’ll fight. I feel good right now with the guys we have inside.”
Slaughter’s top two inside guys, senior Jorge Wright
at nose and junior Will Clarke
at tackle, have plenty of experience and the versatility to play other positions. Wright was asked to hold the point last year at nose tackle, try and create double teams, and keep blockers off of the linebackers so they could make plays. In this defense, Wright now has more freedom to get off of blocks and make plays himself.
“We want to be able to move him around in different situations,” Slaughter said of Wright. “He is a 290-pound kid, so we have the capability of lining up and being 290, 300 and 270, and that’s pretty big.”
Clarke has the size and versatility to play both the defensive tackle and the defensive end positions depending upon what type of offense the defense is facing. Slaughter prefers taller, longer-armed defensive linemen who can grow into their bodies and Clarke, at 6-foot-6 and 270 pounds, certainly fits that profile.
“Will is 270 pounds right now, so I can see him being 280 by the time fall rolls around and he’s a real versatile type of guy,” Slaughter said. “He can play defensive end against run teams and we can move him inside and have a mismatch in the pass rush against a guard and still be able to do things blitz-wise where he can move and be very effective inside. You want guys like that who can do two things.”
Slaughter says the defensive end and Buck linebacker positions are where agile, athletic players are needed to get pressure from the edge (or in the case of the Buck, to be able to drop back into coverage). Right now, Slaughter said he is still looking for those edge guys and will even take look at the incoming freshmen when they arrive for fall camp because those two positions are the easiest for younger players to handle physically.
“You can put a guy in there that can run and is an athlete on the edge at end or at Buck and it’s not a deal where we have to put them into situations where they’re going to get banged against two-back run,” Slaughter said.
“The transition in college football (is easier) at Buck or end than it is at nose or tackle because inside those are men and if we put a guy in there who is maybe a little younger against grown men then that’s more of a transition than playing on the edge, for sure.”
When Slaughter was at Stephen F. Austin the three best pass rushers he had never played defensive line before he started working with them. Two were wide receivers and the other was a linebacker.
“Those were guys who can change direction; they were tall and they were long and they got bigger,” Slaughter said. “If I can find a guy like that, yes, that’s what I want.
“You have to see, does a kid play physical at the position he’s playing? If he’s not a physical kid at receiver or running back or wherever he’s playing, he’s not going to be physical as a defensive lineman,” Slaughter added. “I want physical kids and tough-minded people who you can tell the transition from going to a defensive line position won’t intimidate them.”
In the future, Slaughter said he will likely have to do a fair amount of projecting when recruiting defensive linemen.
“I want to recruit ends who can grow into tackles and tackles who can grow into being noses and Bucks who are tall and can grow into being defensive ends,” he said. “That’s the way I’ve always recruited - not necessarily take a kid that is size-ready early and heavy enough early because a lot of times they are going to get heavier and bigger and not be able to move the way I want them to move.”
Overall, Slaughter has been pleased with the effort and attention to detail that his guys are showing so far.
“They want to win,” he said. “It’s important to them and they’re excited about getting out there and going to work every day. They’re buying into everything that we’re trying to teach them and show them, and that’s the most important thing.
“We haven’t played a game yet and when you have guys that haven’t played a college football game before it’s going to be an adjustment, so my job is to get them ready for that.”