Size, or lack thereof, is a little bit of a concern right now for West Virginia University defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Last year, Casteel had the luxury of having two 285-pound-plus guys in the middle of the defense plugging up holes and occupying blockers.
This year it looks like the guys manning the middle will be in the 270-275 pound range if everything goes according to plan by the time fall camp begins.
“Yeah it’s a little concerning,” said Casteel of being much smaller up front. “There is no question we don’t have the 300-pound kid up front, but we’ve been like that before so hopefully we can find ways (to compensate). We don’t have to tee off until September so these guys still have a lot of eating to do between now and September.”
Jorge Wright (281 pounds) and Josh Taylor (285 pounds) are the two leading candidates at nose, with 259-pound Julian Miller and 236-pound Bruce Irvin the top two guys working the outside. Wright showed flashes last year, taking part in 175 snaps as a sophomore and making the key play in the Marshall victory when he forced a late fumble that turned around the game.
“Jorge is a good football player. He played a little bit for us last year and he’s got some explosiveness,” said Casteel. “He’s just got to get coached a little bit and he’s got to rep it and he’ll be ready to go by the time we start playing in September.”
Taylor, too, has a decent amount of experience. He played more as a sophomore in 2009 in place of Scooter Berry than he did last year, but he has managed to produced37 tackles in 23 career games.
If Taylor and Wright can become stout up front that will enable West Virginia’s speed guys on the outside and in the back end to create some problems for offenses. Casteel believes this defense could potentially be one of the fastest he’s had at WVU.
“I think we run pretty well in the back end and then when you talk about adding a kid like (junior college linebacker) Josh Francis … you lose a J.T. Thomas but you add Josh and he can really run,” said Casteel. “You’ve got Bruce Irvin and he can run so we’ll have to do what we need to do with guys who can move a little bit.”
Irvin has gotten most of the attention so far this spring and rightfully so. He displayed an ability to get to the quarterback that West Virginia hasn’t had since Gary Stills and Canute Curtis were in the program in the mid-1990s. Casteel said the defensive coaches will spend this spring teaching Irvin the fundamental things that he will need to take on much bigger blockers this fall.
“The closer you are to the football the better you’re going to have to be with your hands, leverage, and doing those things and that was one of the things we were concerned a little bit last year with Bruce - whether he could handle a 330-pound guy, breaching him and doing some of the things that he has to do and that’s what he’s working on right now,” said Casteel. “Bruce is an explosive guy and he’s learning how to play.”
Casteel also pointed out that sophomore Will Clarke is another guy who will get a lot of reps this spring and will be counted on next fall.
“We really thought we would be able to get some work out of him last year and then he turned that ankle – he had a high ankle sprain – and that really kind of delayed his progress,” Casteel said. “By the time that he got back we were kind of in a role so he got limited a little bit. He’s another guy who is going to help us and he’s a guy who is going to continue to get bigger.”
The veteran defensive coordinator indicated that he may have to tweak some things up front in order to make up for his team’s lack of size so his inside guys don’t have to continually absorb direct blows from 300-325-pound offensive linemen.
“We’d have to do some things to help them but the bottom line is they still have to be a fundamental football player - it just helps when they’re a little bit bigger and they’re fundamental,” he said.Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik