MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia is going from a defense that was trying to figure out who they were to a defense that knows who they are and is now committed to becoming a much more effective unit this year.
Of course, the skeptics will say it can’t get much worse than what took place on the field last season.
Five times the Mountaineers gave up more than 500 yards of total offense, including 700 yards in a wild and wooly 70-63 victory over Baylor. Nine times, WVU allowed more than 30 points, including four games of permitting 50 points or more.
Following a midseason stretch that saw WVU give up 49 points at Texas Tech and 55 points in a home loss to Kansas State, coach Dana Holgorsen opted to shake up his defensive staff and give Keith Patterson defensive play calling responsibilities.
Now, Patterson is fully in charge of the defense and his primary objective has been to change the mindset of his players. His staff has spent the last seven weeks making sure their players understand what their responsibilities are this year.
“It’s like building a home,” Patterson explained. “The first thing you have to build is the foundation. First of all, identifying who you are, what are your philosophies and expectations? From meetings and being on time and preparing for meetings - not being late for class and not missing class, so we work on discipline.
“How do you measure that in football?” he continued. “We want to be the least penalized defense in the country, no stupid or foolish penalties, so we’ve started right down to the finest element of looking at ourselves from a philosophy and expectation standpoint.”
After that, Patterson said he wanted his players to know EXACTLY who they are, right down to what defense they were running.
“We are a multiple, attacking 3-4 defense – we want to give multiple looks with simplistic teaching so we’re going to be multiple, yet simple,” he said. “We want to try and create confusion in the mind of the quarterback – not just by trying to impact the quarterback physically, but also before the ball is ever snapped by putting doubt in his mind. What am I seeing? Is what I’m seeing really what I think I’m seeing?”
You can point to many areas of deficiencies on last year’s defense – a secondary unable to stick to receivers, a defensive front that had a tough time getting to the quarterback or a small linebacker corps that sometimes left gaps uncovered. Any one of those problems can make it difficult to stop people, but when all three are happening at the same time, well, forget it, which is exactly what Patterson said he did with last December’s performance against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl when the Mountaineers allowed the Orange to roll up 507 yards of offense, including 369 on the ground.
“I haven’t thought about it since the last second ticked off the clock,” he admitted.
What Patterson has spent the majority of his time thinking about is getting two new coaches (Brian Mitchell and Tony Gibson) up to speed with his system and also getting his players in tune with how he wants things done. Worth noting is the fact that this is really the first time since Patterson was at Tulsa three years ago that he is not playing catch up heading into spring drills.
“It’s going to make a difference because we have a plan, we know what the plan is and we’ve been communicating that plan to our players over the course of the last six or seven weeks,” Patterson said. “We haven’t had a practice yet, but you see a swagger and a confidence with our kids growing. We’ve had a great off-season from a strength and conditioning standpoint. We are developing a mindset defensively. What has made West Virginia great on defense over the years has been that relentless passion and effort that has allowed them to be successful, and we’re going to try and build on those characteristics.”
Another thing that has helped in the past were some pretty good players, namely 11 players drafted during a six-year period from 206-2012. This spring, the Mountaineers have several key players returning from last year’s defensive unit and the hope is that they are not just a year older but also a year better, too.
A real strength in the defense could come up front where West Virginia returns two solid players in Shaq Rowell
and Will Clarke
. Not only are those two guys among the biggest players on the team, but they are also becoming team leaders during the developmental season.
“If you ever want leaders on defense that’s where I want them – up front,” said Patterson. “The game is still going to be won and lost in the trenches on both sides of the ball, so when your two best leaders and two of your better players are up front, that gives you tremendous confidence in your entire defense.”
Defensive coaches are also more confident when they have an experienced and capable secondary. West Virginia had neither last year, and in order to help that area along the Mountaineers brought in Gibson to coach the safeties and Mitchell to oversee the corners. Both have plenty of experience working in systems similar to Patterson’s.
“Bringing in Brian Mitchell … he comes from an odd-front background with Bronco Mendenhall at BYU. He understands what I want from a corner technique and those positions, which is critical in this scheme,” Patterson said. “We put a lot of pressure on our corners so we’ve got to develop those guys.”
Patterson is also encouraged by what he’s noticed from his group of linebackers that he’s seen walking around in the hallways and what they were able to accomplish during the off-season getting ready for spring ball.
is not even the same person,” said Patterson. “He’s 230 pounds and moves like he is still 190. Nick Kwiatkoski
is 232 pounds and he will probably play at 235, so you have two inside linebackers that are 230-plus pounds. Then you’ve got guys with experience like (Doug) Rigg, (Jared) Barber, Shaq Petteway
, plus Sean Walters
and young men that we are trying to develop.
“Probably the least experience we have on the field is at outside linebacker, which we are going to have to develop some depth, but we do feel like we’ve got people coming in the fall who will be able to step into those positions to provide the depth we need.”
Patterson said the Mountaineers have changed their focus in recruiting by attempting to bring in taller, more athletic guys to match what they are facing in the Big 12.
“I think we have helped ourselves with little bit taller, more rangy, athletic-type personnel,” Patterson said. “You have eight second-level players on defense and I think we’ve helped ourselves there in recruiting. You never know until guys get on campus and they start playing how they are going to adapt to playing in the Big 12, though.”
The same goes for this year’s defense, which may be a little heavier on experience, but still remains light on accomplishments.