Learning Curve

  • September 02, 2008 10:24 PM
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By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
September 2, 2008

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sophomore middle linebacker Anthony Leonard found himself in the game much earlier than he expected last weekend against Villanova. Leonard knew he was going to play - just not as much as he did.

  Sophomore Anthony Leonard logged five tackles last Saturday against Villanova.
All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo

“At the time I didn’t think I was going to play that much,” Leonard said Tuesday. “I knew I was going to play down the road but I was ready when the coach called my number.”

It was the first time in his young career that Leonard has played a college football game when the result was still in doubt. West Virginia used eight first-time starters against Villanova and at times it showed. And although Leonard wasn’t one of those eight first-timers, he wound up playing the majority of the game and finishing with five tackles. He said his Sunday grades were so-so.

“I didn’t grade as well as I thought I did. I’ve still got a lot of cleaning up to do – a lot more work to do,” Leonard said. “For the most part I thought I was flying around. What I’ve got to do is adjust to the speed. It’s a lot faster out there than I thought it would be. It’s a lot different coming into the game in the first half as opposed to the fourth quarter.”

The things Leonard needs to clean up are important.

“I checked the board earlier and I think I had at least three missed assignments,” he admitted. “By just being in the right spot I could have probably made a lot more plays. If I had just shifted over according to the personnel that they came out in I would have been fine.”

For the most part Leonard said he took the right angles; it was just a matter of diagnosing the plays a little more quickly and beating the blocker to the hole.

“I was taking the right angles. A lot of my plays came from assists rather than tackles,” he said. “I also missed some plays too because of misreading the offense and not playing with my feet and thinking too much.”

Young players getting their first substantial playing time usually get winded during the game. That wasn’t a problem for the 6-foot-1-inch, 240-pounder, who admits there were 60,000 reasons to keep his adrenaline going.

“You’ve got about 65,000 people out there watching you so you don’t want to mess up in front of that many people,” he said.

Leonard said last Saturday Villanova smartly used West Virginia’s speed to its advantage.

“If you look at the tape you realize that according to their formation they had leverage with what they did. How they executed so well was with a lot of misdirections and stuff like that,” he said. “It was a good look for us to prepare for what East Carolina or what other teams might throw at us.”

According to Leonard, the plan going into the Villanova game was to start out in their base defense but Villanova forced the Mountaineers to change tactics.

“Villanova pressured us into blitzing a lot,” Leonard said. “Coach used some things that he didn’t want to use for the Villanova game.

“We definitely got a good front three and we’ve got (Zach) Cooper and Larry Ford out there on the edge. What concerns us is when we can’t stop the run when they get second and five or second and four because now the ball is on their side of the court,” Leonard said. “We want it to be second and eight or second and nine. This week we’ve got to stop East Carolina’s run game and make them pass.”

East Carolina’s 27-22 victory over No. 17 Virginia Tech has gotten the West Virginia players’ attention. Leonard is impressed with what he’s seen so far of the Pirates.

“They are coming off a big win. They’ve got a good offense,” he said. “They’ve got playmakers that can get into the end zone - not that Villanova didn’t - but (East Carolina) has playmakers on both sides of the ball and we’ve just got to step it up and be a better team this week.”

East Carolina’s running game managed 158 yards and a pair of rushing touchdowns against a touted Virginia Tech defense.

“They’re offensive linemen really stick on their blocks – much better than what they did last year,” Leonard said.

Like Villanova, East Carolina also has a mobile quarterback in Patrick Pinkney. The Mountaineers had trouble with the Wildcats’ Antwon Young, who finished the game with 231 yards of total offense. Pinkney had 235 yards of offense against Virginia Tech and was responsible for two East Carolina touchdowns.

“He’s a smarter quarterback than what Villanova had and he can make plays,” Leonard said. “He’s hot on his feet so we’ve got to control him, control their run game and make them rely on the passing game.”

Weather could be an issue one way or another for both teams on Saturday. Hurricane Hanna could reach land by Friday and move through the Carolinas. If it misses the teams must also be concerned about the Greenville heat.

“Coach has emphasized to us about drinking a lot of water this week,” Leonard said. “Actually it was pretty hot out there today and it was probably the toughest practice we’ve had since camp. We had extra conditioning before practice was over so it was a tough practice to prepare for the game on Saturday.”

Even hotter than the September North Carolina weather is an East Carolina team that has won three in a row since last year, including a victory over Boise State in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl. East Carolina’s 8-5 record in 2007 was its best in seven years and the Pirates have 50 lettermen returning, including nine starters on defense. Leonard knows West Virginia is heading into a hornet’s nest this weekend.

“We’ve been in this position for a couple of years,” he said. “Everybody is going to get their chance and they just happen to be at their peak right now. What is it their coach’s fifth or sixth year? Of course we’re going to get their best shot regardless.”

Now that Leonard is expecting to play more this weekend he says he’s taking a different approach.

“I still prepare the same except I’ll watch a little more film,” he said. “It’s definitely going to be some changes in the lineup this week but you’ve just got to be ready for whatever curveball coach throws at us.”