Observing the last two NFL drafts only served as a reminder of how good West Virginia’s defense was in 2010. That year, West Virginia ranked third in the country in total yards allowed – the best performance by any Mountaineer defense since 1996 when they had the top unit in the nation permitting just 217.5 yards per game.
And there have been other really good Mountaineer defenses through the years.
In 1954, West Virginia’s defense gave up an economical 186.7 yards per game to rank sixth in the country - one of four consecutive years from 1952-55 that Art Lewis’ stoppers were ranked among the 10-best in the country.
Jim Carlen’s 1967 defensive unit was ranked ninth in the nation allowing 203.6 yards per game, and from 1981-83, Don Nehlen’s defenses were ranked among the nation’s top 15 while his 1988 unit finished 17th in the country in yards allowed surrendering 285.8 yards per game.
Obviously, West Virginia has a long history of playing great defense and all of those outstanding units had one thing in common – good players.
Lewis’ 1955 defense that finished eighth in the nation (giving up just 194.8 yards per game) featured two eventual first-round draft picks (Joe Marconi and Chuck Howley), a pair of second-rounders (Bruce Bosley and Larry Krutko) and two third-rounders (Sam Huff and Fred Wyant).
In 1988, a total of 10 players off of that defense were drafted by NFL teams, including two – Renaldo Turnbull and Mike Fox – taken among the top 51 picks in the draft. All but one of those guys (linebacker Steve Grant at No. 253) were picked among the top 250 selections in their respective drafts, meaning they would have also been selected in today’s pared-down draft.
The same can be said about West Virginia’s most recent dominant defenses – Steve Dunlap’s 1996 unit that finished first in the country in total yards and rushing, and Jeff Casteel’s 2010 group that gave up just 271.1 yards per game.
There were eight players drafted off of West Virginia’s 1996 defense, including four second-rounders in Mike Logan, John Thornton, Charles Fisher and Barrett Green. Seven so far have been drafted off of the 2010 defense, including first-round pick Bruce Irvin. In fact, since 2005, 11 West Virginia defensive players have now been drafted by NFL teams.
“It’s always been about good players,” said defensive assistant coach Steve Dunlap, who had a hand in WVU’s two most recent outstanding defenses. “It’s about players buying into what you’re doing and also having good coaches.”
Yes, good coaches, plus good schemes, too; in 1996, Dunlap was one of the first coaches in college football to implement the zone-blitzing system the pros were using. That year, he had two of the best pass rushers in the country in Canute Curtis and Gary Stills, and he often used them in tandem on third down on the way to getting to the quarterback a school-record 59 times that season. Casteel’s unorthodox 3-3-5 stack configuration, too, gave teams problems in 2010 with edge rusher Bruce Irvin finishing second in the country with 14 sacks. The Mountaineers got to the quarterback 45 times that year.
“In two years we had more than 100 sacks,” Dunlap recalled of his mid-1990s defenses. “We got ahead of everybody with the firezones and all that stuff. We were maybe a little ahead of the curve because we were doing that before everybody else and we had a great understanding of it.”
Sometimes, however, statistics can be misleading. Dunlap explains.
“A lot of times there were a bunch of close games like there were in 1996 and in 2010. That 1988 defense was awful good, too,” he said. “We just got so far ahead of everyone and the average winning margin was like 22 points.”
Plus, there are some teams who play for stats. Dunlap recalled studying a tape of one prominent defense several years ago and noticing that many of their starters were still in the game despite the outcome already being decided.
“Some guys play to make themselves look good statistically so they can become a head coach someplace else,” Dunlap said. “Our coaches here never did that. Any opportunity we could get a young player into the game he was in. That’s always been that way and we’ve always tried to build a stronger team because what you are doing is building experience for a guy who hasn’t played a lot. So when it came time for them to have to play, he had a little experience under his belt and it made us a better football team.”
For the most part, West Virginia has been successful, not just because it plays good offense or good defense, but rather because its coaches can easily recognize their strengths in any given year and then make adjustments to play to those strengths.
“It takes all three parts to have a winning program,” Dunlap explained. “Sometimes one is a little better than another and a great example of that is probably the ‘93 team. That was the most overachieving team there ever was. They won 11 games and that is absolutely amazing.
“They were all overachievers and they all bought in,” Dunlap continued. “The big thing nowadays is buying into what you’re doing. It’s the ultimate team sport and if you’re off doing your own thing, I don’t care if it’s offense, defense or special teams, you’re not going to be successful. Those kids bought in and believed in what we were doing and there were no freelancers.”
Statistically, the 1996 and 2010 defenses were West Virginia’s two best in college football's modern era. Both had unique schemes, great pass rushers and veteran defensive backfields. According to Dunlap, they also had similar attitudes.
“They didn’t care where the ball was, put it down and we’ll stop you,” he said. “I never heard any complaining or saw any finger pointing. And the guys have to like each other and play for each other and those two defenses did that.”
Plus one more thing … Those two defenses had outstanding players.
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