By John Antonik for MSNsportsNET.com
April 13, 2009
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s really good defenses under Jeff Casteel have all had one common trait: really good nose guards.
In 2004, all-Big East nose guard Ben Lynch helped the Mountaineers finish 28th in the country in scoring defense and 37th in total defense. A year later, Ernest Hunter captured all-Big East honors and helped West Virginia finish 13th in scoring defense and 15th in total defense. WVU defeated Georgia, 38-35, in the Sugar Bowl.
Two years ago, all-Big East nose guard Keilen Dykes anchored a West Virginia defense that finished seventh in total defense and eighth in scoring defense on the way to winning the Fiesta Bowl.
Casteel believes junior Chris Neild could wind up being the best of the bunch before his career is finished.
“Chris Neild is the best player that nobody really knows about except us coaches and I guarantee you the linebackers that play in our defense because he makes a lot of plays for those guys with double teams,” Casteel said.
West Virginia’s 3-3-5 stack defense may be designed to take advantage of fast, athletic linebackers and safeties, but it is built around a big, physical nose guard up front who can control the line of scrimmage. A good nose that can draw double teams frees up others to make plays, and that is exactly what Neild does.
“He’s a really, really good football player,” Casteel said.
Defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich has sent several defensive linemen to the pros and he told Charleston Gazette’s Dave Hickman earlier this month that Neild combines traits of some of the better ones he’s ever had.
A cross between John Thornton and Chris Parker personality-wise, is how Kirelawich described Neild. That’s pretty heady stuff.
Parker anchored West Virginia’s defense that helped the Mountaineers go undefeated in 1988 and play Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl for the national championship, and Thornton is currently a 10-year pro having played with the Titans and Bengals.
What makes Neild even more effective is the fact that Scooter Berry plays alongside him.
“He’s just a hell of a football player,” Kirelawich said of Berry.
Neild and Berry give West Virginia two high-quality players up front to hold the point of attack. Because Kirelawich knows what they are capable of doing, he wants to develop more players behind them.
“We want to establish a solid two-deep and that’s what we’ve been doing,” Berry said. “Me and Neild, they take us out during practice to try and get the younger guys some reps and get them ready to play.”
Berry believes the team should be able to travel eight quality linemen this year.
“We’ve definitely got a lot of depth this time around,” Berry noted. “A lot of guys haven’t really played but they’ve been around and they know what to expect. We need to have at least eight or nine good defensive linemen that can travel to have a good rotation and keep guys fresh.”
West Virginia didn’t have a lot of defensive line depth last year and because of that, Neild and Berry were asked to learn multiple positions.
“This spring I’ve been playing tackle and I’ve been there all spring,” Berry said.
The same goes for Neild.
“I get as tired playing three plays at nose as I do one play at tackle,” Neild said. “It’s a little different out there. I know my job at nose and I am trying to do my best to perfect that. I’ve got no problem staying in there.”
Neild said Kirelawich spelled things out very clearly when Kirlav was recruiting him in high school.
“I was told that that way my job and I accepted it and still accept it,” Neild said. “Whatever is going on in your head that you think he would say to me … that’s what he said to me. This wasn’t outside and him talking to me – this was in school. People were hearing him talking to me like that. I liked that. It intrigued me.”
Neild understands that in order for this defense to work the way it is designed, he has to occupy the blockers up front and get a good push on the center and guards.
“I know the plays come off me and I’ve got to keep those linebackers free,” he said. “I don’t care if I make the plays, as long as other people make plays and we get that W, that’s all I care about.”
And Neild is confident that Reed Williams, J.T. Thomas and Pat Lazear will make plays behind them.
“I don’t care who you have in there at nose, those guys are going to make plays because they are real good players,” Neild said.
Casteel agrees, adding Neild to that equation.
“In our defense you’ve got to be strong down the middle and with Chris and Reed, those are probably our two best players defensively,” he said.
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