Casteel Seeking Replacements, Leaders
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Ask defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel who his No. 1 mike linebacker is heading into spring football drills and you will get a shrug. Ask him who his starting nose tackle is going to be and you will get a shake of the head. Same goes for corner and two of the three safety positions.
“The kids have asked me and I tell them I don’t know yet – and we don’t need to know yet,” said West Virginia’s veteran defensive coordinator. “We need to know that when we get a little closer to September.”
Casteel and Crew have seven key players to replace off of last year’s defense, including four players invited to the recently completed NFL combines. The one comforting fact is that Casteel has been in this situation before.
“The standard has been set here and this is very reminiscent of what happened after the Fiesta Bowl here (in 2008) when we had to replace seven or eight of those kids off a defense that was pretty good,” Casteel said. “We’re in the same situation and the kids understand what the standards are and they’re trying to work toward that.”
Exactly which player will be the most difficult to replace is tough to determine. Chris Neild was one of the best nose tackles to ever play at WVU and he was outstanding as a senior. Neild will likely be drafted by an NFL organization that runs a 3-4 defensive scheme later this spring.
“Whoever we can find who can make the plays Chris made – if it’s you (nodding to one of the reporters asking him questions) you can come over and make the plays. We just need to find a guy who can make plays,” Casteel noted.
Robert Sands gave the Mountaineers freakish size in the back end of the defense and he likely could end up on an NFL roster in 2011.
“Robert was a big-play kid for us,” said Casteel.
J.T. Thomas, Scooter Berry, Anthony Leonard and Sidney Glover were all outstanding players who improved each year in the program. Thomas also is an NFL candidate.
“J.T. played his best for us and Anthony Leonard stepped up and really played well for us,” said Casteel.
Then there was cornerback Brandon Hogan, who was injured during the final regular season game against Rutgers and did not play in the bowl game. Not coincidentally, West Virginia’s defense gave up a season-high 23 points and 378 total yards to NC State in the Champs Sports Bowl.
“You lose a Brandon Hogan, who you could argue may have been our best player on defense last year,” said Casteel. “Our challenge as a coaching staff and to our players is to try and plug guys into those spots and we’re excited to get a chance to get these guys onto the field and see what they can do.”
Casteel has a long track record of fielding terrific defenses at WVU, his 2010 unit finishing third in the nation in total defense (261.1 ypg.) and second against the run (86.5 ypg.). Last season marked the third time in the last seven years Casteel’s defense has finished ranked among the top 15 in the country in total defense, and the fourth time in the last six years it has finished ranked among the top 13 in scoring defense. Last year’s defense allowed an average of just 13.5 points per game, which was certainly good enough to have translated into a few more wins for the Mountaineers in 2010.
However, with Dana Holgorsen now on board running the offense, the defense should have a little more room for error this fall. Still, Casteel believes there are enough remaining parts to field a better than adequate defense in 2011.
Returning seniors Julian Miller and Bruce Irvin will give West Virginia two big-time playmakers up front.
“You’ve got a kid like Julian Miller back up front,” Casteel said. “He’s a good football player and he’s got to play his best football this year. We’ve got Bruce Irvin back who was everybody’s hero – mine too. He was probably the biggest reason why we were second in the country in third down defense.”
Having Irvin go through spring practice will greatly enhance Casteel’s hope that he can become an every down player for the Mountaineers this fall.
“Our challenge there is to try and develop him into a kid who can get more snaps for us and not just be a third-down specialist,” Casteel said. “Not having him in the spring last year, we did what we had to do (to get him ready). Bruce is willing and able to do whatever he needs to do to help our football team. And we’ve got to find some answers inside to replace Chris and Scooter.”
Josh Taylor, Jorge Wright and junior college signee Shaq Rowell are candidates at nose.
The search for replacements continues with the linebacker corps, which Casteel personally handles.
“We have Naj (Najee Goode) back who did a nice job, but we’ve got to find some players and we’ve got some good, young players there,” said Casteel.
Junior college transfer Josh Francis is an older player who might be able to work himself into the equation once he gets a spring under his belt.
“We’ll get a chance to see him in the spring and we’re excited to see him,” said Casteel. “He’s a kid who is explosive and can run a little bit.”
Team interception leader Keith Tandy is back at one corner and will anchor a secondary that also features junior safety Terence Garvin, the team’s top tackler in 2010 with 76 stops. The coaching staff is also very high on sophomore Mike Dorsey. Corners Brodrick Jenkins and Pat Miller have playing experience, as does safety Eain Smith.
“Keith Tandy played his best football last year for us and Keith can, and will, play his best football for us this year,” said Casteel. “We’ve got to plug in a guy for Hogan and Brodrick Jenkins and Pat Miller … those guys have all seen good snaps for us. Eain Smith has been a third-down safety for us and now he’s got to take the reins and become a kid who can replace Robert at free safety.
“We like Mike Dorsey and Terence Garvin played and did a nice job for us last year as a second-year player. We’ve still got to try and find some ways to see what these kids do best and hopefully put them in a position where we can play to their strengths,” said Casteel.
In addition to finding seven new starters, Casteel said it will be important to identify who this year’s leaders will be. That could be the most important objective of all.
“The bottom line is having guys understand doing it every day and every play on a consistent basis because most of these kids have played for us, but have played for us as role players and there’s a big different taking 10-12 snaps in a confined situation that you know pretty much what is going to happen, as opposed to having to defend everything. That’s usually the jump for kids and that’s college football. You have kids that graduate and we have to replace them – we just have to replace a great deal of them.”
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