MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia will have the same defensive scheme it has been using since Jeff Casteel began running it in 2002, but this fall’s defense will have a different look from last year’s unit that ranked high in so many national categories.
Just how different will it be?
Well, Chris Neild and Scooter Berry are gone. So are Brandon Hogan, Robert Sands and Sidney Glover, as well as linebackers J.T. Thomas, Anthony Leonard and Pat Lazear. Four of those eight guys were taken in the NFL draft.
In terms of size, this year’s group will more closely resemble some of the Mountaineer defenses Casteel fielded in 2002, 2003 and 2004 – smaller in size and stature but still quite effective.
In 2010, Casteel had a 300-pounder in the middle (Neild), a 290-pounder to his side (Berry), and a 6-foot-5-inch free safety (Sands) roaming the back end. This fall, it will be a challenge for Casteel to get a pair of 280 pounders on the field at the same time, and there is nobody close to Sands’ size at free safety.
“We are definitely going to have to rely more on our speed and technique than by just trying to be big and powerful against guys,” admitted senior defensive tackle Julian Miller, who was listed at a svelte 260 pounds this spring.
Because it lacks size, West Virginia is likely to see a steady diet of isos, powers and two tights this fall. Offenses that are willing to grind it out, stay on schedule and keep the sticks moving could have success against the Mountaineers. However, the trade off is the temptation of trying to keep up with Dana Holgorsen’s high-scoring offense. What is more valuable to a defense in the long run, an offense that consumes clock and manages the game or one that piles up big points?
When Rich Rodriguez was calling the plays, Casteel’s defenses enjoyed success because they knew teams were usually chasing points to try and keep up with Rodriguez. The total yardage West Virginia’s defenses allowed in those years were not always impressive, but the most important defensive statistic, points allowed , were not too far off from WVU’s best defensive seasons in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Perhaps a high scoring offense could once again be a friend to the defense this fall.
At any rate, Miller believes first and second down are going to be crucial for the defense this year.
“We know with teams possibly trying to run isos and powers at us that we are going to have to play heavy in there for the first two downs,” Miller explained. “But then once third or fourth down comes up, we’ve got to rev it up and go out there with our speed.”
Third down is where this defense has made its living. In fact, only Rose Bowl champion TCU was better than West Virginia on third down last year, the Mountaineers permitting opposing teams to convert just 26% of its third down tries.
Two big reasons for that were Miller and Bruce Irvin, who last year combined to produce 28 negative yardage plays, including 23 sacks. Having those two guys back this fall is a major plus.
“One of the things that helped us out last year was getting into third down situations and having our Swat team out there with guys like Bruce and guys that could make a play on the ball,” Miller said. “It’s definitely going to be a key again this year trying to get teams back into third down situations where we can bring the pressure, because we definitely have the speed on this defense.”
The speed is a given, but the question still remains: will they be able to hold up against those power teams on the schedule such as LSU, Syracuse, Connecticut and now Maryland with Randy Edsall taking over? This spring, the defense was exposed to very little of what it will be going up against this fall, and it’s something the defensive staff will have to play close attention to during fall training camp.
“We don’t get it out here going against this offense,” said Miller of preparing for power running teams. “That is one thing we try to work on individually when we are working amongst ourselves. With watching enough film and getting the proper technique down, come game time that will be the ultimate test.”
Tackling was another major concern this spring, and it’s something Miller admits needs a lot of cleaning up when they regroup in August.
“I can honestly say we are not where we need to be as far as tackling, but the effort and actually getting to the ball is there,” he noted. “We’ve just got to be able to wrap up, keep our heads up, and get good form tackling. We’ve definitely got to work on that come fall.”
Bill Kirelawich, than man who coaches Miller and Irvin, says he likes his chances with the guys he will have sitting in the meeting room this fall.
“I don’t know how good we’ll be and I don’t promise success, but I know this, from a purely selfish standpoint, I like those guys I’ve got,” Kirelawich said. “The only thing I ask them is to give me everything you’ve got. Give me everything you’ve got every day and I’m going to get along with you just fine.”
Miller doesn’t anticipate that being a problem.
“As far as last year’s defense and the veteran players that we had and the experience we had on that team, it’s not going to be there quite as much this year, but definitely the effort and just getting out there and getting after the ball, the same type of hustle will be there,” Miller vowed.
In the last analysis, Miller wants the defense to maintain the impressive reputation it has earned during the past few seasons - despite all of its losses.
“In my mind I like to keep that whole motto: we don’t rebuild, we reload,” he explained. “I want to be able to show the nation and the Big East, yeah, we lost a lot of key guys but we can definitely reload and get guys in those positions. We have guys in the past that have played enough times, and they know what they’re doing, it’s just a matter of executing plays.”Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik