It’s always nice when two of your best leaders also happen to be two of the biggest and baddest dudes on the football team.
That’s what West Virginia University coaches believe they could have this year in senior defensive linemen Shaq Rowell
and Will Clarke
: two alpha males - one the strong, silent type; the other willing to chirp as loud as all those cicadas that are about to come out of the ground this summer after 17 years of hiding. Of the two, Rowell is the guy most willing to speak up, although he admits that hasn’t always been his nature.
“It was something that happened,” he explained after one spring football practice last month. “It’s not something that I’m trying to do - I’m not going out there trying to tell people stuff; if I see something and I know I can correct somebody I will tell them. Same way with anybody else, if I’m doing something wrong correct me. If somebody screams at me I feel like I play harder.”
A motivated and determined Shaq Rowell
in the middle of the defense this fall could be like adding more cowbell to the rock song "(Don’t Fear) the Reaper" – which is exactly what The Bruce Dickinson, ehem, The Keith Patterson is looking for in his Mountaineer defense – more cowbells a ringing.
“If you ever want leaders on defense that’s where I want them, up front,” West Virginia’s defensive coordinator said earlier this spring. “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 and two of your better players are up front that gives tremendous confidence to the entire defense.”
No matter how you slice things up, West Virginia’s defense was just not very good last year and that really bugs Rowell.
“We talk about it – I’m not going to lie to you,” Rowell said. “We finished (last in scoring defense) in the Big 12 last year and that’s not something to be proud of. If we could have finished first or second – we lost to Oklahoma and TCU (by close margins) and those are two games I wish we could get back. It was a few snaps and a few plays here and there and stuff we wish we could get back.”
Unfortunately, there are no do-overs in football. Last season was what it was and Rowell admits it was tough listening to everyone talk smack about how bad they were last year.
“You just have to take it for what it was,” he shrugged. “People were just being honest. It hurts to hear it, but if you aren’t doing your job your boss is going to fire you. To me, honestly, hearing it from the people of West Virginia shows that they really care.”
And people really do care about their football around here, as does Rowell. After his scholarship offer to Ohio State fell through following an outstanding senior season at Ohio prep power Glenville High, the Maple Heights, Ohio resident had to take the scenic route to college, first stopping off at Iowa Western Community College before ending up at WVU. Most JC guys don’t take things for granted when they reach the big time, and Rowell is one who definitely falls into that category.
“You’re playing just to go to school,” he said. “My mom always told me to get a college degree. Forget that, I’m playing to be able to eat and go to bed. In juco it was tough. I can’t explain it because juco humbled me to be where I’m at right now. That’s why I take full advantage of everything.”
You won’t get any arguments from Patterson about that.
“It is pretty evident that guys like Shaq Rowell
can play,” Patterson said. “If you can create depth behind guys like him, it’s going to make you a better football team.”
Rowell appeared in all 13 games in 2012, recording 42 tackles, two tackles for losses and a pair of pass breakups. However, Rowell failed to get a sack and WVU’s three primary guys up front – Rowell, Clarke and Jorge Wright – produced a mere 3 ½ sacks combined. Rowell just shakes his head whenever he considers that stat.
“That’s pathetic,” he said. “We want to show people on film that we can play and we want to really be dominant.”
There were many contributing factors to last year’s disappointing defensive performance, perhaps the most obvious (and least talked about) was the fact that West Virginia had a bunch of 18-year-olds running around out there. Anyone involved with football will tell you that there is a big difference between an 18-year-old kid and a 22-year-old man out on the football field, particularly on defense.
“I’m 23 now and me looking at an 18-year-old freshman I’m like, they don’t know what they’re getting into,” said Rowell. “I was the man in high school and I was dominating and I thought the same thing when I came out of juco. But this is different and you have to get used to it.
“I wish everybody could just go to junior college or redshirt one year just to get used to college and then play,” Rowell continued. “That’s what happened to me - I came in and thought I was ready to play; I’m reading all these newspaper articles, but I learned that I have to work hard and nothing is going to be given to me. That’s why I come to practice everyday and work hard because the better I get, the easier things are going to come to me.”
As one of the team leaders, Rowell detects a little different dynamic on this year’s team – a group of players that are possibly a little closer and a little more invested in each other. One thing is quite obvious: the star power is simply not there on this year’s roster like it was last season.
“This team is full of people that no one has ever heard of and I like that,” Rowell admitted. “We’re just going to have to work hard. A lot of championship teams, besides Alabama, you can’t name most of the guys on those teams. We have a lot of good guys that want to be great.
“Last year we had Geno (Smith), Tavon (Austin) and Stedman (Bailey) … those guys can run routes in their sleep and Geno can throw it to them. Well, this year we’ve got to work harder than those guys. Those guys were blessed with the talent and a lot of us are not blessed with the talent that they’ve got, so we’ve got to work harder to get to the level that they were.”
Because of that, Rowell believes the secret to success for the Mountaineers this season will be how tight the team can remain when the games get tight in the fall.
“We are a very tight-knit group,” he said. “We all hang out and we all go over to each other’s houses. We didn’t do that last year. No one on the team did that last year and the whole team is doing that this year. We’re picking guys’ houses just to hang out and that’s going to make us successful – just really being a team.”
It will be up to guys like Rowell to make sure that continues through the summer and into the fall. Defensive line coach Erik Slaughter frequently preaches the responsibility his D-linemen have to the rest of the team.
“We want our defensive linemen to lead our football team,” Slaughter said. “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.”
From all indications, leaders like Shaq Rowell
are doing right so far, and if they continue to do right, the Mountaineer defense could get right in a hurry.