MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The finished product is nowhere in sight, but defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel says their hands are in the clay molding the 2011 Mountaineer defense.
“We get a little bit better as we go,” he said after Monday morning’s practice. “Our guys had a good week last week and coming out today in shorts is tough. It’s like playing basketball without the basketball. Their effort has been good. Their attitude has been good. We’ve got some young guys starting to come on. You see a kid like (safety) Darwin Cook, and he’s starting to progress a little bit.”
Cook played all 13 games last year as Sidney Glover’s backup at bandit safety, collecting nine tackles and a fumble recovery as a redshirt freshman. It’s been a long journey for Cook, once a 5-foot-10-inch, 180-pound defensive end in high school.
“Steve (Dunlap) went and watched him and he was a kid that could run. I think he’s a 10.6 or 10.7 guy in high school and he’s a wonderful kid who wants to do well,” said Casteel. “He really has to learn the game from the ground up. You can really see him playing the game a little bit more. He still has a long ways to go but you can see him getting better and taking Steve’s coaching.”
The same goes for defensive end Bruce Irvin, who is learning every day from defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich how to become an every-down player. Irvin just has so much natural ability that it’s only a matter of time before it comes to him.
“He’s got to work on the fundamentals – work his hands, work his pad level, understand what is happening around him,” said Casteel. “On third down the situation is dictated for you for the most part. He has to be able to go in and play the game a little bit, even though in the fall we would be doing a little bit more film study and trying to get him into tendencies and those types of things. Right now, it’s all fundamentals and he hasn’t done a lot of that. This has been a good spring for Bruce.”
Irvin has been in the backfield virtually all spring, but Casteel says some of that may be misleading.
“They’re not cutting and there are a lot of things going on out there,” he said. “When you watch the last part of practice there are things that really aren’t the way things are. We’ll have to wait and when we start playing for real in the fall we will get a chance to see how much improvement he’s made. He’s done a good job, and again, he’s been very willing and he’s been a leader for us. It’s not hard for him to be a difference maker because he’s so big and strong and fast.”
Kirelawich said last week that Irvin really won’t get a taste of what he’s going to see until this fall when a team with tight ends and fullbacks steps onto the field.
“That will be interesting. Those are the things that we’re trying to manufacture when we’re together defensively but there is really not a substitute for that,” Casteel admitted. “So we’re not going to know about that until he lives and breathes it. He’s a tough kid and Kirlav works it every day in individual and those are the things we’re trying to get better at.”Briefly …
- Casteel said his group is now beyond baby steps and they are starting to put in a few more wrinkles around the base defense.
“Some of the younger kids, the ‘backers and the kids up front, are starting to do some things – they showed up a little bit in the scrimmage,” he said. “There are some encouraging things, but as far as being where we’d like to be, no, not yet.”
So, what does he want to see out of the last two opportunities he has with them before fall camp?
“We’ll still put a couple of more little wrinkles in off our base but the main thing is what we’ve been doing all spring is just trying to get a little bit better fundamentally,” he said. “Our communication has gotten progressively better, but we’re still looking at the same things. We’re still working on tackling, working on striking, working on getting on and off blocks and really that’s the game. Our success or lack of success will really come off of those things.”
- West Virginia will have several additions coming in this summer to help the defense, but Casteel said realistically the guys he’s working with right now are the ones he will likely be getting ready to play this fall.
“I don’t really concern myself about the guys who aren’t here yet,” he said. “When they get here in camp and if a kid picks it up quickly and makes plays – and we think we have some good kids coming in … really you are going to win or lose with the guys that you have in here right now. There may be a kid or two who can step in and play for us. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
In some respects, it might be tougher for a young defensive player to come in and play right away than it is a young offensive player because the offensive player knows where he’s going – the defensive guy has to guess where the offensive guy is going.
“It’s really tough on a kid to come in and play (right away),” said Casteel. “He’s got to learn different coverages and there are a lot of responsibilities that go with those things. The good thing about offense is they can punt. Defensively, we can’t punt so we pretty much have to know what we’re doing. They play three bad snaps and punt the ball. We play three bad snaps then we’ve got to play three more bad snaps.”
- These days it seems like offensive coaches have to become defensive experts and defensive coaches have to become offensive experts just to stay up on things.
“They’re obviously studying defenses and we’re studying offenses as you go. There are always new things that come out and hopefully you can try and work on some of those things in the spring and in fall camp so your kids have an understanding,” he said. “That’s why the first couple of games are really tough because you don’t know what you’re going to see. Defensively, when you’re out there with a lot of new kids it really becomes an issue. It comes down to being able to block and tackle and those are the things that you’ve got to get good at. If you play aggressive and run to the ball a lot of times you can cover up a mistake by being aggressive.”
What Casteel has seen so far from Dan Holgorsen’s offense is that it forces defenses to think quickly.
“It’s like a two-minute drill from the first series to the last,” he noted. “They are able to run the football out of it and be able to get the football out quickly. They make people have to chase around their tempo. The biggest difference with these guys is they want to throw maybe a little bit more than other people that are in the spread.”
Another aspect of Holgorsen’s offense that Casteel admits has helped his players is that it is designed to identify and exploit weaknesses in defenses.
“That’s what I like about our kids because we’re playing our base stuff and you have some kids out there with mismatches, but the kids have done a good job of being able to handle that,” he said. “It’s really good for our guys because they can see where the weaknesses are and that’s the best way you are going to be able to play defense when you know where your strengths are and obviously try and overcome your weaknesses.”
- For the most part, Casteel believes he’s going to have 11 guys out on the field on defense that can run this fall. And he believes they may be even faster when he gets them again this fall.
“I’m anxious once we get back into camp because the kids make a lot of gains between now and when we get them again in August with size, speed or quickness,” he said. “You go out in individual the first day of fall camp and sometimes the kids look a lot quicker than what you remember them. They’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. It’s a process.”
- Senior free safety Eain Smith has been watching from the sidelines, and although Casteel says it would be much better for him to be in there getting the reps himself, he at least can see the same mistakes the coaches are seeing.
“What you hope with Eain is that he can feel our pain a little bit by standing and seeing and saying, ‘What are you doing?’ I talked to him about that last week. I said, ‘Now you can see why we throw our hats and say things we probably shouldn’t say sometimes.’ He gets a chance to see it,” said Casteel. “The same thing happened with (former linebacker) Reed Williams when he was out and he got a chance to look at it from our perspective and I think it helps them have a better feel for the game. I hope that’s what Eain learns from taking mental reps.”Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik