HOT READSBy for WVUsports.com
June 25, 2010 10:10 AM
MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning will be providing periodic commentary on the Mountaineer football program for MSNsportsNET.com. You can also read more about Mountaineer football at Jed’s new web site http://thesignalcaller.com.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - “Distractions are the ultimate equalizer.”
|Jeff Casteel's defense has finished No. 1 in the Big East Conference in scoring defense three of the last five seasons.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Aside from being one of my favorite quotes from NFL Hall of Fame coach Bud Grant, the above words are also sage advice that could serve the 2010 West Virginia defense well.
WVU has finished tops in the Big East in scoring defense three of the last five seasons. Not bad for a unit that’s produced only two NFL draft picks during that span (Ryan Mundy, 6th round pick to Pittsburgh in 2008 and Ellis Lankster, 7th round pick to Buffalo in 2009). With no coveted, next-level talent to speak of since Adam Jones went No. 6 overall to Tennessee following the 2004 season, how might we account for the consistent success demonstrated by West Virginia’s defense against the Ray Rices, Kenny Britts and Donald Browns of the world? One prevailing reason has been WVU’s knack for defensive ‘trickeration’ – the ability to show one thing before the play then actually jumping into something else after the ball is snapped. Few defenses utilize more smoke and mirrors than the Mountaineers, and when they are firing on all cylinders they are a tough unit to solve.
“With our five DBs back there in the odd stack, there’s a lot going on. You might have a guy in the hole, you might have a guy in robber coverage, you might have a guy blitzing off the edge,” said West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart.
“For an opposing quarterback to see all that, especially when we are at our best disguising things, it’s really a lot to account for. It’s very tough to get ready for it in just a week.”
When executed properly, Stewart believes the bark in this particular equation can sometimes be just as impactful as the bite.
“As a former defensive coach who has worked with quarterbacks, too, I can tell you that the element of disguise sets the whole thing in motion,” Stewart said.
“To an offense, the deception can be more disheartening than the actual blitz itself.”
That’s good news for West Virginia fans because as defensive coordinators go, few are better at coaching up the art of deception than Jeff Casteel.
I’ve known Casteel for almost twenty years. I played against his defenses, I coached against his defenses and I know him well enough on and off the field to say this: he doesn’t smile much. He’s about as matter-of-fact as they come in the coaching business. To paint a mental image of what Casteel is like on the sidelines or in the staff room, just think of Tom Landry being engrossed in volume two of Alexander Bogdanov’s three volume collection on Tectology.
In short, you would certainly hate to find yourself across the table from Casteel in a game of Texas hold ‘em. Just ask Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops, the offensive mastermind who went down in flames against Casteel and company in the 2008 Fiesta Bowl.
Even Casteel himself was pleased with West Virginia’s defensive effort that night in the desert two-and-a-half years ago. So much so that if you throw in the game film of that epic WVU victory, you see Casteel’s stone-jawed stoicism almost melt away … almost, but not quite.
Don’t get me wrong. Watching the tape of his unit befuddling then Sooners-freshman quarterback Sam Bradford (the no. 1 overall pick in April’s NFL draft) doesn’t compel Casteel to start shaking the clicker like a tambourine and break into the cha-cha on the table top. It does, however, put a certain sparkle in his eye that you rarely otherwise see.
On that historic night Casteel’s Mountaineer defense did indeed play a game of hold ‘em, though it wasn’t Texas style as it took place a little further west in the Grand Canyon State of Arizona. According to Casteel, disguise and subterfuge were the keys for the Mountaineers against the might and firepower of a Sooners offense that had averaged 43 points per game.
“That group of kids got better every week. By the third or fourth week of the year, we had a game at Maryland where they really put things together. From then on they kept gaining confidence. That’s the key,” explained Casteel. “The more confident they became, the better they got at showing one thing and running another. A lot of times I would watch the film and if I hadn’t known what the call was, I wouldn’t have known until post-snap what we actually ended up playing.”
And that goes a long way toward explaining how Sam Bradford felt.
On the fifth play from scrimmage, Oklahoma had the football with a second and six from its own 34-yard line. As Bradford barked the cadence, his eyes were fixed on the abundant movement taking place in the West Virginia secondary. Eric Wicks is up, then he’s back, and up again. Quinton Andrews is back - and then he’s up. Ryan Mundy is up, and then over, and then back.
By the time Bradford took the snap and dropped to throw, the WVU defense had already given him a lot to digest. The young quarterback’s body language immediately suggested he was seeing something out of sorts as he scanned the field. A quick second later, Mountaineer linebacker Reed Williams came crashing free to take Bradford down for a six-yard loss.
With the Sooners facing a third and 10 on the very next snap, West Virginia showed blitz as its linebackers crept toward the line. Bradford dropped to throw and again looked quickly confounded as the Mountaineers dropped eight defenders into coverage, including three linebackers. A ninth defender was left hovering along the line of scrimmage as a spy.
When the smoke cleared, despite the numerous threats the defense had shown before the snap, only two Mountaineers ended up actually rushing the passer. One of them was Johnny Dingle. With his receivers overwhelmingly outnumbered downfield, Bradford nervously shuffled his feet within a collapsing pocket. Dingle ran the hump around Sooners left tackle Phil Loadholt and yanked the Oklahoma signal caller to the ground for an eight yard loss.
Two sacks in the first six snaps of the game and suddenly the Mountaineers had made the well-oiled Sooners offense look like a smoked-out junker with the parking brake on.
“In the Fiesta Bowl, we did have a lot of movement and it took Oklahoma a while to sort that out,” added Casteel. “That kind of thing allowed our kids to play fast.”
Fast indeed. Case in point came later in that same opening quarter when West Virginia turned the Sooners away empty-handed in the red zone.
The sequence came after the Mountaineers grabbed a 3-0 lead and Oklahoma’s Allen Patrick returned the ensuing kickoff to the WVU 9-yard line. OU had been backed up by a holding call and was facing a third and goal from the West Virginia 19-yard line. At the line Bradford again watched the WVU secondary bounce to and fro with multiple looks, and again it bewildered the young quarterback. Bradford came out of a play action fake and forced a throw into traffic. A leaping Quinton Andrews picked it off in the end zone for the Mountaineers and the OU scoring threat was snuffed out.
“That one really gave our kids a boost of confidence the rest of the night,” said Casteel. “The only rule we really give them is they have to make sure they are able to get back to their responsibility [in the coverage] and their responsibility obviously overtakes their disguise. We give them a lot of latitude, especially with an experienced group like we had in the Fiesta Bowl.”
Fast forward to the present day and all of this does beg the question: How might West Virginia’s current crop of defenders grade out in Casteel’s school of deception?
“It’s hard to tell where we’re at as a group until we get them back into camp and have a game or two under our belt,” Casteel said. “The kids did a good job at disguising some things in the spring but we were really limited. It’s easy to do things in spring ball without game pressure, but it’s different trying to do it in a real game situation.”
With the return of several key components on the back end of his defense this fall, Casteel does see potential for the Mountaineers to once again incorporate some bogus looks.
“Last year we weren’t quite consistent enough to do some of the things we would like to do. Robert Sands is a good example,” said Casteel. “He was in his second year but he was still learning. You saw him really start making plays in the last four or five games and I think that’s when he really started getting comfortable doing things we need him to do. After two years back there he’ll have the ability to disguise some things for us now.”
Casteel is quick to point out that the strength to a quality defense comes in numbers and synergy.
“You need 11 guys on the same page and we do have a solid core of experienced players returning,” he continued. “Sidney Glover understands things back there, and Keith Tandy is back for us and he’ll have a better grasp after a year of experience. This year we’ll have a lot of kids with experience and we’ll need to take the next step and become better players than last year.”
Deception without effect is useless. The Mountaineer defense never gives a sham look or fakes a blitz without an end result in mind, and more often than not that end result involves turnovers.
“We’re at our best when we’re creating turnovers. That’s what helps us win games,” Casteel said. “This kind of thing with the false looks helps with that.”
Outside of the obvious effect it has on a quarterback’s decision making and the many ways it can result in more interceptions for a defense, there are other benefits that such deception offers in the turnover department. Not only can false looks confuse an offensive line’s schemes and lead to blown assignments and unblocked defenders, but they can also result in game changing plays for a defense in the passing game even when the quarterback connects with a target downfield.
For example, when a quarterback’s rhythm is thrown off by a phony blitz or a bluffed look it often affects his accuracy. Creating indecision in a quarterback’s mind almost invariably impacts the placement of his throws, which in turn, knocks a receiver out of his designed route. When a receiver is forced off stride to try and grab an off-the-mark throw he is immediately thrust into a vulnerable position and becomes an easy target for a headhunting defensive back bent on jarring the ball loose. We’ve all seen it happen - a receiver running a dig route fifteen yards downfield twists his body to acrobatically snare a pass thrown behind him only to get popped by a roving safety and put the ball on the carpet. This is often the product of the exact type of timing disruption in the passing game we are talking about.
Deception is an effective weapon on many levels. But true to his form as an old-school mud-and-blood defensive coach, Casteel warns that at the end of the day all of the trickery and slight-of-hand in the world won’t help without a group of guys willing to line up and smack someone in the mouth.
“It doesn’t matter what you’re running defensively if your kids don’t play hard, and I believe our guys will do that,” Casteel said.
“They’re a good bunch of kids, and I think they’re hungry to prove themselves.”
With the Fiesta Bowl game tape still rolling in the background of our conversation, Casteel glances again toward the screen just in time to watch Mountaineer linebacker Bobby Hathaway blow up Sooners’ running back Chris Brown for a 2-yard loss on a stretch play.
Casteel almost smiles … almost, but not quite.
After all, he doesn’t want to tip his hand.
WVU Baseball Experience in Moore, Okla.
Big 12 Championship Report 3
Mountaineers Speak on CNN
Big 12 Championship Report 2
Big 12 Championships Report
Harrison Musgrave strikes out 14 in TCU victory