|Tony Gibson was officially announced as West Virginia's new defensive coordinator last Friday afternoon.
|Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Veteran coach Tony Gibson is ready for his first crack at running a major college defense. Last Friday, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen officially announced that Gibson is replacing defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, who left to rejoin Todd Graham at Arizona State.
Gibson, who has spent time coaching defenses at West Virginia, Michigan, Pitt and Arizona, returned to Morgantown last year, in part, because of his familiarity with Patterson’s defense while the two worked together at Pitt.
Now, Gibson will continue what Patterson started here last season.
“We changed what we called our Buck linebacker to Will linebacker, so really that’s the only difference we have,” Gibson said recently. “When we line up, people aren’t going to say, ‘oh, wow, they’re different.’ No. You’re still going to see three down linemen. You are going to see four linebackers and four DBs. We’re going to do some things that are a little different to make our scheme better – things we were trying to get to during the middle of the year but injuries forced us to keep starting over.”
Speaking of starting over, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen was dead set against doing that this time around with his defense. Gibson becomes the fourth different coordinator the unit has had since the 2012 Discover Orange Bowl and Holgorsen believes it’s time for some continuity.
He wanted the same general terms and concepts for his defensive players to understand this season.
“We’re going to keep it simple,” said Gibson. “Dana and I have talked about this a lot. If we’re going to change something, let’s make sure we’re using the same terminology so our kids know it and make us learn it as coaches. It’s a lot easier for four coaches to learn it than for 50 guys. That’s kind of where we’ve been.”
Gibson’s journey back to West Virginia has been like a winding, country drive to his native Van, Gibson first going to Ann Arbor, Mich., where he spent three seasons with Rich Rodriguez before joining Graham’s coaching staff at Pitt in 2011. Then, after a year with Rodriguez once again at Arizona in 2012, the timing was right for Gibson to return to West Virginia where he once took part in one of the most successful periods in Mountaineer football history.
Gibson worked on a WVU defense that helped win a Sugar Bowl in 2006 and a near-miss on reaching the BCS title game in 2008.
“My wife and I talk about it all the time,” said Gibson. “When I interviewed with Dana I (was) thinking, ‘wow, this chance may happen.’ Then it happens and I come back. The first time I came into the building I’ve got my old office back. I never thought I’d get the opportunity (to return to WVU) and to get away from it and realize how good it was at this place, that’s the biggest thing.”
Because many fans follow their favorite teams with their hearts instead of their heads, Gibson took a lot of heat for the way he departed West Virginia the first time. He understands that’s the nature of the business.
He also points out that his No. 1 priority at the time was taking care of his young family.
“Nobody guaranteed me I was going to have a job here when Rich was leaving,” he said. “You go with what you know and who you know and those kind of things. I know I was hated for the way we left and all those things, but I hope everybody realizes it was just about (having) a job. Then, when you get away and you get an opportunity to come back here, that was the no-brainer part of it.”
Having been here once before, Gibson is well versed in West Virginia’s history of producing tough, physical defenses from the days of Sam Huff in the 1950s to Darryl Talley in the early 1980s.
“There is great winning tradition at West Virginia and we’ve always had tough kids that played hard,” he said. “They’re hungry and I really like our kids and I like their attitude. I think they’re ready to work and they’re showing that in the offseason workouts.”
Gibson is also no stranger to defensive strategy, having worked closely with Jeff Casteel when they got the stack off the ground at WVU, and then later working with Scott Shafer (Syracuse head coach), Greg Robinson and Keith Patterson along the way.
“I’ve worked with some pretty good coordinators,” Gibson pointed out. “Greg Robinson won Super Bowls and did a great job when he was at Texas. Scott Shafer is now head coach at Syracuse and obviously Jeff, and the good thing about it is when we first learned the Odd Defense I was here when it got built.
“Jeff and I were the only two guys from then and what’s different from what we do now? OK, those guys would stack ‘backers in the box where we now have two ‘backers in the box with two outside guys,” he mentioned. “We’re the same thing right now. A lot of that stuff we did is the verbiage that our kids know and we’ve tried to keep in the system.”
Gibson says he has always been involved in game planning at every place he’s been.
“They’ve always asked my input,” he said. “When I was at Pitt with Keith I was co-coordinator and passing game coordinator and did a lot of game planning stuff with that. Those guys have trusted me on game day to make calls. Did I call whole games? No. But I would help them out and throw ideas at them between series. I know it’s different when it all falls squarely on me to make every call, but you need great assistant coaches and I think we have that to help adjust.”
A good West Virginia defensive staff has gotten even better with the recent addition of former Penn State assistant Tom Bradley, universally regarded as one of the top strategists in the game.
Bradley’s role with the Mountaineer defense hasn’t been revealed yet, but Holgorsen said last Friday that new assistant coach Damon Cogdell will work with the defensive line, Joe DeForest will take over the safeties, Brian Mitchell will remain with the corners and Gibson will work with the linebackers.
Gibson likes the idea of being with the linebackers because he is right in the middle of the action, both literally and figuratively.
“Let me go down there where all of that experience is at,” Gibson joked. “Guys like Nick (Kwiatkoski), (Jared) Barber, (Wes) Tonkery, (Brandon) Golson and Shaq (Petteway) – these guys have played a lot of football and you look throughout the defense, we have a lot of kids that played a lot of football last year. They took lumps when they were young and now they’re getting a feel for it, so they’re hungry and they’re working hard.”
Gibson said he is going to continue seeking ways of getting more pressure on the quarterback. Sacks have been hard to come by the last couple of years and putting the quarterback on his backside is something all good defenses must be able to do from time to time.
“In this league, everybody knows quarterbacks don’t hold the ball for a long time so the sack numbers aren’t real good throughout, but we’re going to try and create as much pressure as we can,” he said. “How can you do that? Rushing three is not going to get it all the time, but there’s a time, too, when you can rush three and make the quarterback hold the ball and that creates some things for you.
“We’re going to bring four guys, we’re going to bring five guys and we’re going to bring six,” Gibson added. “It’s all about confusing the quarterback, showing them different looks and moving the dots on different guys. We can’t just sit still and play the same front and coverage every single snap. That’s not going to work in this league.”
In the final analysis, all good defenses have these basic traits - playing fast, playing aggressively and playing smart.
And that is exactly what Gibson is expecting from this year’s defense.
“The thing that makes great football coaches is motivating your players, getting them to play hard and you better have pretty good players, too,” he said. “Without that people are going to say, 'oh, that guy is not a very good coach.' Inside this building we understand that.
“We don’t need a lot of ideas, let’s just get simple. We need teachers; here’s what we want to do, let’s do it this way and teach it this way.”
After spending a year in the Big 12, Gibson now has a clear understanding of what his guys will be defending. Also, West Virginia has had two full recruiting periods to bring in the type of players it needs to match up against the high-powered offenses it is facing on a weekly basis in one of the best football conferences in America.
Gibson has spent the last few months telling his DB recruits what to expect when they take their first snap against Baylor, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas Tech and the rest of the Big 12.
“I said in this league you’re either going to get exposed or drafted,” he said. “That’s what’s going to happen in this league. It’s wide open. People don’t take their foot off the pedal. You don’t get time to catch your breath from week to week.”
No, you don’t, and that includes the guys who are calling the defenses, too.