Leaders Up Front

  • By John Antonik
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  • March 20, 2013 10:48 AM
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If West Virginia wants to field a better defense in 2013 it is going to have to start up front, and the Mountaineer defensive coaches believe they have two pretty good pieces to work with in senior defensive linemen Will Clarke and Shaq Rowell.

“They have really matured and developed into great leaders, which is what we need,” said defensive coordinator Keith Patterson. “If you ever want leaders on defense, that’s where I want them - up front. The game is still going to be won and lost in the trenches on both sides of the ball so when your two best leaders are two of your better players up front that gives tremendous confidence to the entire defense.”

Defensive line coach Eric Slaughter agrees.

“They lead our football team – not the D-line, not the defense – the whole team,” he said. “I can’t say enough great things about either one of those guys.”

“I just feel like I go out at practice and do what is necessary, and if the guys are having a bad day, I will just say some encouraging words and we are ready to play,” said Rowell of his willingness to speak his mind. “That is pretty much it.”

However, Slaughter cautions that his group has a long, long way to go before he will ever be satisfied with them.

“We were adequate at best on a really bad defense, so we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “I said a year ago today if you are going to dominate on defense you’ve got to dominate up front. We were good at times and we were bad at times, so we’ve got a long way to go as far as being dominant up there and that’s the next step our defense needs to take.”

Yet having some of your biggest guys being leaders holds water in the locker room and on the field when things are not always going so well. The big guys are the ones who tend to be heard.

“That’s what I want – that’s what I recruit guys for and I tell them that when I recruit them,” Slaughter said. “We want our defensive linemen to lead our football team. We’re the biggest guys and people are going to listen to us, but they won’t listen to you if you don’t do right, too. Our focus right now is to out-work everybody in this building and be the best that we can be and when it comes time to lead, people will listen to us.”

West Virginia’s defense made a difficult transition from the 3-3 stack Jeff Casteel was using for years to the attacking 3-4 scheme the Mountaineers adopted last year. Basically, the coaches have gone from who are we? to this is who we are and this is what we are going to do. Unfortunately, for a number of reasons, it took them more than a year to get there.

According to Slaughter, his players know exactly what he’s talking about now.

“I didn’t meet them a couple of weeks ago like I did last year,” he said. “This point last year we had really Will Clarke and Jorge Wright as the only two guys who ever played for us and now we have a lot of guys who have played. It’s not like teaching them a new language. When we go in there and talk football they understand what I want. They understand how I coach and they understand how they should play for me.

“We’re way far ahead as far as that goes, but we’re way far behind as far as where we want to be as a team,” he added.

For the first time, really, since Keith Patterson was coaching at Tulsa three years ago, his defensive players are going through spring drills now familiar with his system. The new coaches, too, are accustomed to what he wants done. Safeties coach Tony Gibson worked with Patterson at Pitt two years ago and corners coach Brian Mitchell worked in a similar scheme when he coached with Bronco Mendenhall at BYU.

Having spent about nine weeks together now, Slaughter said all four guys are already on the same page.

“The main thing we are trying to do right now as a defensive staff, especially with two new guys in there, is get on the same page as far as the language that we speak so we’re all saying the same thing and our kids are hearing the same thing,” Slaughter said. “We did so many wrong things last year defensively before the ball was ever snapped – alignment, communication, knowing the situation, we were bad at that - so that’s an emphasis for us to try and improve in that area, not to beat ourselves before the ball is ever snapped.

“To have a staff that is on the same page and understands what we want accomplished … where we’re at right now, we’re light years ahead of where we were last year.”

Slaughter also believes they are getting closer to the personnel needed to defend the type of wide-open offenses they will be seeing on a weekly basis in the Big 12. What they inherited was a roster of defensive players recruited for a specific system to play in a different conference.

“You’ve got to have long, athletic guys,” Slaughter said. “You’ve got to have guys who can run; you’ve got to have guys that are interchangeable up front and athletic. If you don’t get people behind the sticks here and not making impactful plays – tackles for losses and sacks – you’re in for a long day defensively. We couldn’t do that consistently last year up front so that’s a major point of emphasis for us. We’re slowly getting there, no doubt.”

Finally, Slaughter said the defensive staff will use the things that they need to to remind their players how ineffective the defense was last year, but not to the point of overwhelming them with nothing but negative thoughts.

“There are a lot of reasons why we weren’t very good and if you go back and analyze all of them, the ones you can fix you fix and the ones that you can’t fix you move on,” he noted. “The bottom line is right now we know where we’ve got to improve and we’re going to do it. We’ve got a plan to do it, we’re excited about doing it and we’ve got guys that are returning, so obviously that helps.”

Among those returning guys are two potential leaders up front – which could turn out to be a big thing for a Mountaineer defense that was sorely lacking leadership a season ago.

Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.


Shaq Rowell, Will Clarke, Keith Patterson, Erik Slaughter, West Virginia Mountaineers, WVU, Big 12 Conference football

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