Shaq Rowell will be the first to admit that his junior season at West Virginia in 2011 didn’t quite live up to expectations.
The JC import from Iowa Western Community College was brought in to give the Mountaineers some immediate help on the defensive line. He appeared in 10 games last season managing eight tackles, including one in the Orange Bowl victory against Clemson, while logging about a hundred total snaps – not quite what some had envisioned for the one-time Ohio State signee, including Rowell himself.
“Last year I was new to everything and I didn’t really know what to expect,” he said recently. “This year, I know what to expect as far as the tempo and everything, and the pace has slowed down a lot more for me than last year. I feel like I’m more prepared this year.”
That’s certainly good news for first-year defensive line coach Erik Slaughter, who doesn’t exactly have an abundance of beefy defensive linemen at his disposal this fall. In fact, Rowell is one of the biggest guys on the Mountaineer defense, standing 6-feet-4 and weighing in at 310 pounds.
The role the former defensive coaching staff envisioned for Rowell last year was as a space eater in the middle of the defense who could line up on the center and draw double teams to allow the linebackers behind him to roam free.
Now, Rowell is shading the center with a two-gap responsibility in West Virginia’s new 3-4 scheme defensive coordinator Joe DeForest has installed.
“I’m still firing out the same way, but this year I’m playing the shade instead of over the center. So I’m not really playing a true nose,” Rowell explained.
What that means is that Rowell is now expected to fight off blocks and either get to the ball carrier or try and sack the quarterback rather than enabling others to do so.
“We’re allowed to make plays this year,” he laughed. “That’s very encouraging to me.”
Of course, Rowell is only teasing. He said he was willing to do whatever the coaches asked him to do – be that occupying blockers or making the plays himself.
“That’s the part of being a team player,” he mentioned. “If you think about it, if the linebacker is making the tackle then I’m doing my job at the end of the day, so I was satisfied with that. Now, I’m expected to make plays and it makes you happier to come out to practice every day versus last year when you were holding the blockers up to let Naj (linebacker Najee Goode) get 70 or 80 tackles.
“It was all part of being on a team and that’s why we won the Orange Bowl,” he added. “We all did our jobs and that’s what made us successful last year. That is what is going to make us successful this year, because everyone is willing to do their jobs.”
The scheme DeForest is running is geared toward making big plays and creating turnovers. Actually, DeForest has almost elevated the word “turnover” into ten-commandment status with his players, but always hunting for the football can sometimes be a risky proposition as well.
“All other 10 guys can be doing their job but if one person messes up it can mess up everybody,” he said. “They always say one bad apple can spoil the whole basket and it’s true.”
Despite being one of the few seniors on the defense, Rowell by no means has a starting job locked up. He’s battling out a bunch of younger players, including promising true freshman defensive tackle Christian Brown from Bridgeton, N.J. Rowell isn’t conceding anything to the freshman, but he does admit that Brown has the makings of becoming one a heck of a football player for the Mountaineers.
“Christian Brown is having a great camp,” said Rowell. “I’m liking what I am seeing from him and he’s been out-playing me, too – I’m not afraid to say that,” Rowell said. “He’s a very aggressive player.”
Rowell didn’t stop there.
“That kid is showing me some stuff that I haven’t seen from another freshman,” he said. “He’s impressed me a lot. He’s still got to get some things down, but physically, that kid is ready to play and I think he can play in any conference.”
When older guys like Rowell see younger players like Brown performing well that only adds a little extra spice to the practices.
“Yeah, it makes you want to step it up, but at the same time, you are like, ‘OK, I’ve got to step it up but we’ve also got somebody who can come in and help us,’” Rowell said. “To me, I’m not one of those selfish-type of guys. If I see a young guy doing something right I’m going to praise him. If he’s doing better than me then he deserves to start. If somebody is outworking me then I’m going to have to come back the next day and try and outwork him.”
Rowell said in meetings and practices so far this preseason that Slaughter has been reminding his players of the doubters out there who think the defensive line is going to struggle this year. So far, all of the players seem to be listening to their coach.
“A lot of people say the defensive line is our weakest link but Coach Slaughter has been preaching to us that we have to come out and prove to people that we are not the weakest link on this team,” Rowell said. “I do believe we have the capability to be the leaders on this team because it all starts up front. If we can’t do the job up front then this defense won’t be any good.”
As for personal goals this season, Rowell said all of them are all tied to the team’s performance.
“I don’t have any expectations for myself – I have team expectations,” he said. “For me, individually, I don’t have anything like that. I’m not that selfish. We are all working collectively as a team. If all 11 of us get to the ball, I think this can be one of the best defenses in the country.’
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