Emerging Up Front

  • August 05, 2008 03:53 PM
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By Steve Stone for MSNsportsNET.com
August 5, 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Sophomore Chris Neild has every reason to believe that this season’s defensive line won’t miss a beat from last year.

  Chris Neild is expected to take one of the open spots on the defensive line this fall.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

Last season’s front three, led by stalwarts Keilen Dykes and Johnny Dingle, gave WVU the best rush defense in the BIG EAST and ranked No. 18 nationally. Even though both starters have departed, Neild believes this season’s defensive line is just as fast and will quickly turn some heads.

“When everybody starts to learn the system, I think we’ll be fine,” Neild said. “I don’t think there will be a problem at all.”

In the 3-3-5 defense, the players up front play a critical role in stuffing the run and attacking the quarterback. With three down linemen and a fourth rusher coming from anywhere, Neild is mostly responsible for keeping blockers off of WVU’s coveted linebacker unit.

“It’s actually kind of simple,” Neild said when asked what the most important part of his position was. “Just keep that center off that linebacker. Come off low and keep leverage on the center.”

Neild is certain to play a more significant role this season. The Stroudsburg, Pa., native was primarily a backup to Dykes at the nose tackle position last year and registered 13 tackles and assisted on one sack in 11 games.

Making a significant contribution in limited time during his 2007-08 campaign, Neild is more than ready to make an impact in every game now that he must help fill the void of last year’s departures.

“I just try to build up my confidence,” Neild admitted. “Those are big shoes to fill with Dykes and Dingle leaving. They did a hell of a job in there last year and I’m trying to fill that spot and do the best job I can.”

With all the personnel changes that went on prior to the Fiesta Bowl, Neild felt lucky that the defense retained defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel and defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. The third-year sophomore was relieved in knowing the defense would maintain its continuity under two highly-respected leaders.

“I was wondering who was going to leave,” Neild said. “But with Coach Casteel and Coach Kirlav staying here, I was real happy about that. With Coach Kirlav I’m a little more comfortable here because I’ve known him going into my third year. And he recruited me so I’m tighter with him than other coaches. I was definitely happy.”

Neild has every opportunity to impress his fellow coaches and become one of WVU’s mainstays up front. With fellow redshirt sophomore Scooter Berry returning as a starter on the defensive line, Neild looks to fill the nose tackle slot and provide the strength and agility that the Mountaineers need.

With head coach Bill Stewart calling this season’s defensive line “young and explosive,” Neild will also have to provide some leadership in his third season. Although inexperienced, the 6-foot-3-inch, 305-pound tackle believes the men up front must work together in order to enjoy the type of success they are looking for.

“It’s going to take a lot of hard work,” Neild admitted. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re good now. We just got to work on the little things, and get a lot of the fundamentals in. We have to work as a team, and we have to be real cohesive when we’re out there. That will come over time.”

Based on what he’s seen in offseason workouts and through the first few practices in fall camp, Neild has been impressed with the unit as a whole. During individual drills he believes everyone has been coming off the ball well and firing the gaps with plenty of speed and quickness.

Besides using their natural talents, the defensive linemen must also take part in the technical aspects of their position in order to drive the offense back and free up space for oncoming blitzers. Creating plenty of leverage and space to work with is important as a defensive lineman, and Neild offers some tidbits on what he and the rest of the unit need to do to stop opposing offenses.

“We need to work on everything,” Neild said. “Shooting the hands is important for interior lineman like myself, and working on moves to get around the center and guard. Everybody’s really working on their speed, agility and endurance. We’re known as a fast team so we want to just keep it that way and play fast on the field.”

Now a veteran of the group, Neild has worked diligently on perfecting the fundamentals of a defensive lineman. As his younger teammates grind with him through everyday practices for the next five months, he will look to show them the ropes while making a statement of his own in order to practice and play with the first team defense.

“When you’re a freshman you got to work on technique, stance, and coming off the ball,” Neild said. “From what me and Scooter and Doug (Slavonic) saw, we thought they did pretty good actually. We worked with them in the summer but there was a lot of progression.”

Another tidbit that Neild offers the newcomers: Don’t take Coach Kirelawich’s criticism too personally.

“With Coach Kirlav, he’ll get on everybody’s case,” Neild said with a laugh. “I don’t know if they will handle it yet, but they better get used to it.”