I was having a discussion the other day with MSN radio sideline reporter Jed Drenning about some of the strengths and weaknesses of this year’s football team as the Mountaineers begin preparing for spring drills coming up in mid-March.
According to Jed, on paper, the one area that appears to be particularly strong is safety, where West Virginia returns both Darwin Cook
and Karl Joseph
Behind them is sophomore K.J. Dillon
, junior Travis Bell
(who played just three games in 2012 before his season ended with shoulder surgery) and junior Ishmael Banks
, who was forced to play corner last year but is expected to return to safety this spring (he is listed as a safety on the spring roster). Malik Greaves
, a freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., was a mid-semester enrollee who could also make things interesting once he gets established and is comfortable with the system.
In addition to that, the Mountaineers added three safeties on signing day.
Joseph is a star in the making after producing 104 tackles, seven tackles for losses, three forced fumbles, two interceptions and a sack in 13 games on the way to earning a spot on the Fox Sports.com Freshman All-America Team.
And senior-to-be Cook has earned a reputation for making game-changing plays during his career. It was Cook’s goal-line theft and score in the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl that turned an almost certain Clemson touchdown into points for West Virginia that turned the momentum in the Mountaineers’ favor. He also forced a fumble near the goal line that turned away a potential game-tying touchdown late in last year’s Iowa State win.
Having two proven, reliable players quarterbacking the back end of the secondary should allow defensive coordinator Keith Patterson the freedom to spend a little more time concentrating on the obvious issues the Mountaineer defense had stopping teams in 2012.
A great deal has been made about West Virginia’s trouble sticking to Big 12 wide receivers last year, but Mountaineer coach Dana Holgorsen says what was equally disturbing was his team’s inability to get to the quarterback. That was an area his staff attempted to address earlier this month.
“You better find defensive linemen that can rush the passer,” Holgorsen said. “We lost Terence Garvin and Josh Francis to graduation, and we were not very deep at those positions.”
Holgorsen believes his staff improved that area with the junior college and high school players they signed. All of them are long and athletic enough to get to the passer.
“You are always going to face a lot of passing situations, regardless of who you play in the Big 12,” Holgorsen explained. “You need a bunch of guys who can rush the passer - you need guys that can bump down from linebacker to end, safety to linebacker, and such.”
On the other side of the football, a couple of strong recruiting classes have finally given the Mountaineers some sorely needed depth at offensive line. O-line depth has been a major, major issue at WVU, even before Holgorsen’s arrival.
West Virginia added four more O-linemen to this year’s class.
“If you aren’t adding four or five guys per year on the offensive line, it is going to end up catching up to you,” Holgorsen noted. “I think that gives us 15 bodies on the offensive line. You can never have enough of those guys. I like where we are from a depth standpoint, we just have to establish some starters there.”
West Virginia’s top four tackles from a year ago return, including massive junior-to-be Quinton Spain
, who started all 13 games in 2013. At one time, Spain was easily West Virginia’s biggest offensive lineman, but an emphasis on recruiting bigger, more physical players at that spot is starting to show up on the football field.
Last year during fall training camp, Holgorsen briefly toyed with the idea of using true freshmen Tyler Orlosky
and Adam Pankey
in his eight-man rotation, which is a good sign for those two guys moving forward this spring. The Mountaineers were also able to redshirt junior college transfer Mark Glowinski
and that should pay dividends this year as well.
The coaches believe at least two guys in this year’s signing class – JC transfer Stone Underwood and freshman Tyler Tezeno – are talented enough to earn a long look when they get on campus later this year.
“From a game-ready standpoint, we lost four of our top five interior linemen,” Holgorsen said. “At the tackles, we basically have them coming back. We wanted to add some game-ready guys and Stone and Tyler should be game ready. Tyler is a big, thick kid – I know he is a high school guy, but from a physical standpoint, he potentially could be ready.
“Stone is a guy that is a nasty guy that has played a lot of football in the last two years,” Holgorsen said.
If the staff can develop three or four dependable interior guys this spring - coupled with what is arriving later this summer - that will go a long way in determining the effectiveness of this year’s offensive line.
And that will take a lot of the pressure off of a West Virginia offense that will be breaking in a new starting quarterback this fall.