DALLAS - West Virginia University senior defensive tackle Will Clarke
is a veteran of these Big 12 media day extravaganzas.
Last year, Clarke also traveled down to Dallas to represent the Mountaineer defense. Sure, he fielded some questions about the D and how they hoped to keep up with Dana Holgorsen’s high-powered offense, but for the most part, he was more wingman to Geno and Tavon than he was spokesman for his buddies wearing the full-cage facemasks.
Well this year, Clarke was required to do a lot more of the talking - or explaining, depending upon your point of view. A defense that last year had trouble getting off the field is now being counted on by many to be the strength of this year’s football team.
“Roles have kind of switched,” said Clarke in a baritone voice that ranges somewhere between Willie Stargell and Barry White, “but they haven’t switched completely. There are still questions surrounding the defense, even though we seemed to be looked at as maybe the more experienced part of the team. Just like last year, there is still a lot to prove.”
He speaks the truth.
Last week, West Virginia was picked eighth in the 10-team Big 12 Conference in part because of its no-name offense of 2013, but also in part because of its struggling defense of 2012. West Virginia has most of the guys returning from the defensive side of the football, but as an old coach I know used to say, just because you’re a year older doesn’t automatically make you a year better.
And if West Virginia has any hopes of finishing better than eighth this season, a lot of those guys are going to have to be a year better. Speaking on their behalf, Clarke says the players are aware of the low expectations that many outsiders have for this year’s team.
“We’re picked to finish eighth and that’s helping us out because we’re the only guys that think we’re going to be good – or believe that we are actually going to be good,” he said.
Everyone has a theory on why the defense struggled so mightily last year, from new schemes to new coaches to going up against new offensive styles to a lack of overall talent and depth on defense. All of that may have been a factor to a degree, but Clarke has his own take on things.
“Most of the defensive problems were self brought,” he said. “We beat ourselves more than teams beat us. Nothing against the teams that did well against us, but I believe with better preparation and more urgency to get to the ball and more urgency to get the calls – know your assignments and things like that, I believe that can definitely help us a lot.”
Most of what Clarke just said can really be summed up in one word, inexperience
West Virginia was running a bunch of 18-year olds out there in a power conference that was loaded with experienced quarterbacks, which, for them, was like shooting fish in a barrel.
“Game field experience is the best experience you can have because you can’t teach how the game is going to be,” the Pittsburgher stated. “You can prepare players to get ready for games, but you can’t actually put a game situation into practice.”
Put another way, you can have all of the talent in the world but if you don’t know what you’re doing, or you aren’t totally sure what the other guys are going to do to you, then even one-car funerals can get messed up.
Clarke, one of the few experienced players on last year’s defense, tried his best to speak up and help his younger teammates as much as he could when things weren’t going so well.
“I would just take on that leadership role to just talk to the guys and try and bring them back down after everyone is excited and upset from the play that we just got scored on – just tried to bring them back down to reality,” he said. “It’s still the game of football no matter what conference we’re in. You still have to just play.”
A lot of the blame for last year’s woes were shouldered by a secondary that allowed 38 touchdown passes, but some of the blame also has to circle back to a front seven that produced just 23 sacks, or less than two per game. Those two stats really go hand in hand in explaining how much the defense struggled in 2012.
“(New defensive coordinator Keith) Patterson has incorporated a lot more of an attacking style,” Clarke said. “We should be attacking more out of this 3-4 defense instead of the rush-three, drop-eight zone that we were playing. He’s trying to bring more pressure from the front seven, whether it be four guys, five guys, no matter how many guys we’re bringing - just try and bring more pressure on the quarterback and make the pocket close more.”
At the same time, Clarke also admits that it’s not easy playing defense in an offensive-centric conference (with ever-changing rules that mostly benefit the offenses, by the way). Even during media day, all of the defensive guys in attendance took their fair share of questions about the high-powered offenses they will be facing this fall.
According to Clarke, there are some benefits to playing defense in a conference that likes to see a lot of points on the scoreboard.
“The good thing about it is as a defensive player it gives you a lot of opportunities to attempt to make plays,” he pointed out. “I feel like that should be the main goal of every defensive player. The Big 12 is such an offensive oriented conference, especially with passing plays, so it gives us a chance to get a lot of sacks and interceptions.”
Now, the key is for West Virginia to figure out a way to make more of those in 2013.