Maybe it's because Keith Patterson’s father was once a basketball coach, but if you haven’t noticed lately, West Virginia’s defense is getting longer, leaner and more athletic.
This has been an evolution a couple years in the making, and it’s in direct response to the athletic and dynamic spread offensive teams West Virginia is now facing in the Big 12. The days of defending 50-60 plays in a ball-control-style football conference against shorter, squattier-type offensive players are now over.
“With length, when you drop into zone coverages now, because everyone is trying to run the ball to the bubble, or trying to throw it into the creases of the defense, well, when you have guys who are 6-3, 6-4, 6-5 dropping into coverage with their big wingspans those creases become smaller,” Patterson explained.
Put another way, having bigger defenders makes it much tougher for offenses to throw the ball or run it in most situations, says Patterson.
“Now, the creases also become taller so the ball has to be elevated to be able to get it over to someone into the boundary,” he said. “The ball has to be thrown with a little more zip to be able to get it into that smaller window. I just think when you have bigger, longer, athletic guys it makes the size of those windows much smaller.”
I can recall several years ago, prior to West Virginia’s 2006 Sugar Bowl meeting against Georgia, Mountaineer defensive coaches being very concerned about the fact that they didn’t have anyone on their roster capable of matching up against the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-8-inch tight end Leonard Pope.
All of the second-level players West Virginia had available to cover Pope were just 6-feet tall or shorter, meaning the Mountaineers were at a clear disadvantage if Georgia chose to consistently attack the middle of the field with its tight end.
But fortunately for West Virginia, the Mountaineers got off to a big early lead and Georgia was forced to go to a more frenetic pace to catch up and it didn’t have the time to fully capitalize on the clear advantage it had in the deep middle part of the field with Pope.
I also remember for years marveling at the impressive length and size of the players Virginia Tech began recruiting later on when the Hokies really got things going under Frank Beamer. The 6-foot edge rushers Tech used to have with players like Cornell Brown and Corey Moore later became 6-3, 6-4 guys, and consequently, West Virginia had a much more difficult time getting over top of them or around them.
And that is what Patterson is trying to develop at WVU.
“With (Dontrill) Hyman and Will Clarke
, there are times when we can really be impressive up front,” he said. “Kyle Rose
is 6-4 and those guys look normal size. Then you look at our linebackers and they are all over 6-foot tall. (Brandon) Golson and Dozie Ezemma
are 6-1, 6-3 guys on the edge. To me, we’ve got to continue to get more length in the secondary, but with our recruiting plan we have a plan for where we’re headed and we have definitely taken steps in that direction.”
“This recruiting class we just had come in you’re talking about some of those linebackers, some of those DBs, they’re all over 6-1, 6-2, 6-3 and you look at the D-linemen we’ve brought in at 6-4, 6-5,” said secondary coach and ex-defensive coordinator Brian Mitchell. “Like KP (Patterson) says, how do you defend the spread? You’ve got to get bigger, longer, rangier players that can be better space players and that’s the challenge we’re going to have in the Big 12. We’re going to need to continue to recruit a different kind of kid.”
In essence, having bigger guys on defense can actually shrink the field – and that’s what all defensive coordinators want to accomplish - especially now the way offenses can spread people out and identify the weakest areas of a defense to attack. Mitchell says the coaches also have to be able to accurately assess their players to put them into the best situations possible, both fundamentally and schematically.
“We can’t go out and trade for anyone and the recruiting draft is over with so we’ve got to develop the players we have here,” Mitchell said.
Of course, their job can become a little bit easier when they’ve got bigger, agile guys to work with. Yes, you can get by with smaller guys on defense but in order to do so you have to be really good, really smart, really tough and you’ve also got to come up with some unorthodox schemes to confuse opposing offenses, which is how West Virginia was able to make a living all of those years with undersized guys playing the 3-3 stack.
On the flip side, playing a more conventional defense these days requires taller more athletic type players – and those guys are not always easy to sign.
“With spread offenses if you really study them, a lot of the time the ball is coming right through the B-gap,” Patterson said. “People are speed rushing up the line of scrimmage and it just opens up these nice throwing lanes for the quarterbacks, so therefore, we believe in getting bigger, taller ends and then now they’ve got to try and throw it through a guy who is much taller. It definitely makes it harder for a quarterback to have vision.”
Based on the success opposing quarterbacks had against West Virginia’s defense last season, the less vision they have the better.