Wolf's Huddle: Defensive Outlook

  • By Dale Wolfley
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  • April 01, 2014 03:55 PM
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Tony Gibson
“For Whom the Bell Tolls,” is a song released and performed by the heavy metal band Metallica. This song, maybe surprising to some, is inspired by the great 20th century literary work of the same name written by Ernest Hemingway. In this 1940 classic, Hemingway’s protagonist is Robert Jordan, an American fighting in the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. The gist of the story is about loyalty and finishing the job with an iron will, despite facing incredibly difficult circumstances and inevitable doom.
Talking to WVU defensive coordinator Tony Gibson, one gets the feeling - that’s my liberal translation - that this is how he wants his defense’s attitude and performance. Fast, explosive and relentless with a disposition that opposing offenses are inescapably doomed. Think about how powerful this is - every time the “D” takes the field, its mentality is that the offense better bring its lunch box, because it’s going to be a long day. That is the beginning of a solid nucleus, and if one doesn’t first believe, then it will be impossible to achieve!
I asked Gibby, “What, is the best aspect to running this defense with four, five, six, or, in rare circumstances seven defensive backs?”  His reply was simple, “Eight guys on their feet with only three defensive linemen in a three-point stance.”  I interpreted that as meaning speed and more speed. That’s the name of the game nowadays, especially in the Big 12. Nailing down a pure, accurate description for this defense is difficult, because it is a chameleon that theoretically, is continually changing determined by offensive personnel groups.
One can call it what a 3-4, 3-3-5, big nickel or big dime, because eventually it will all come into play. The big is in reference to the normal nickel package where a cornerback replaces a linebacker in the passing game. In the big nickel or dime, it is usually a safety type who is bigger and stronger than a cornerback. He can play stouter in the run game, while at the same time covering the field in the passing game.
In last week’s Wolf’s Huddle, I explained offensive personnel groups and the chess game that goes on with the Xs and Os. An offensive grouping with one running back and one tight end is called 11 personnel, meaning that there are also three wide receivers in that group. Ten personnel consists of one running back, zero tight ends and four wide receivers. That is about as fast as it gets unless the offense goes double zero, which is five wide receivers or “Empty,” which indicates there are no backs in backfield.
Breaking down the numbers from last year’s Big 12 is pretty telling. The No. 1 group that the defense faced last year was 10 personnel. The next largest was 11 and then 20 personnel. That means that more than 70 percent of the time last year our D faced three, four or five receivers on the field at one time. Adjustments to some form of spread offense seven out of 10 plays leads to a lot of substitutions and distractions. Another advantage of going with the big nickel or dime packages is the Big 12 is consistently known for its offensive tempo. Teams like Baylor, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech, to name a few, will try and rep as many plays as they can at the fastest pace, which causes problems with defensive substitution and communication. The best way to counter speed is with speed and having the big nickel as a base will minimize substitution issues.
Understand, if a team comes out in 12, 22 or 21 personnel and attempts to establish an inside power run game, this defense has the ability to respond with bigger packages. The odd front allows the D to have flexibility to line up in a three, four or five man fronts and rush anything from three defensive linemen to incorporating all of them along with the kitchen sink. This scheme also allows for blitz packages with either linebackers, defensive backs or both, creating multiple speed issues for the offensive line. All in all, in my opinion, I believe this defensive scheme is simplistic, and well suited for the speed and skill of the Big 12.
Breaking down the defensive personnel
Like offense, the defense starts up front with the line and the past three weeks of spring ball has been a real work for this group of defensive linemen. In a very short time they have had to learn and execute new techniques while transitioning to a new coach. Thankfully, the coaching part here falls to 37-year veteran Tom Bradley, and they appear to all be working well together. The D-Line right now is two-deep and by next fall, the seventh lineman should be ready to go.
This young but battle-tested group has seen plenty of action. I foresee a heavy rotation something like this:
Ends: Kyle Rose, Eric Kinsey, Dontrill Hyman, Noble Nwachukwu; nose guards: Christian Brown and Darrien Howard. This is a very strong and explosive group, and it will get down and dirty. The seventh in that group is a local boy - redshirt freshman Jon Lewis from Morgantown. The 6-3, 260-pound son of former WVU basketball player Junius Lewis strains and flies to the football every opportunity he gets. Another couple of months with Mike Joseph in the weight room should benefit him and lead to some possible playing time this fall.
The linebacker situation is as good as it has been in recent years. It is a huge plus knowing that senior ‘backers Jared Barber and Wes Tonkery will return to action healthy this fall. Having that and watching the other linebackers is impressive and promising. Like I stated earlier, the Big 12 is about speed and this group can run. Watch out in the pass rush when you see the bookends of Brandon Golson and Edward Muldrow.
The spur is the hybrid position and an outside-the-box player lined up over a tight end or a slot receiver. It’s in good shape with KJ Dillon and Marvin Gross. KJ was having a solid year until his illness, and Marvin played strong as a true freshmen and has a high ceiling. The sam ‘backer should be solid with a healthy Isaiah Bruce and the fast-twitch junior transfer Muldrow. I like this guy, and he is another one who will benefit from a summer with Mike Joseph.
The mike ‘backer is rock hard with last year’s leading tackler, Nick Kwitakowski, and upstart redshirt freshman Al-Rasheed Benton, who on film has virtually jumped out at me. The will ‘backer is even deeper with Golson, Sean Walters, Justin Arndt, and a progressively-returning-to-health Shaq Petteway. On one play, Shaq filled the B gap and collided with an O-linemen that resulted in the linemen being dropped to his knees until next Tuesday!  You can bet that I had a big smile on my face because that is what football is about and the way it should be played.
Evaluating the safeties and cornerbacks is heartening and a breath of fresh air. Defensive leader Karl Joseph, who will fit into the bandit safety, will be a high and low player on the field. One thing you don’t have to question about this guy is his courage. He is absolutely fearless and fearsome for the opponent. Receivers, backs and even quarterbacks should keep their heads on a swivel because they will want to know where this cat is at all time the time. Jarrod Harper, who will back up Joseph, will see plenty of action and is having a solid spring. Jeremy Tyler and Ricky Rumph are working at the free safety spot.
Daryl Worley and Ishmael Banks should lead the way at the cornerbacks, along with Terrell Chestnut, Brandon Napoleon, Nana Kyeremeh and Keishawn Richardson. Worley may be the most mature freshman I’ve encountered and Icky (Banks) is continuing where he left off last year with a solid spring. I don’t like to talk about players who are not officially in school and on the team but there might, and I say might, be a player or two who will have an impact on next season.
Miscellaneous observations …  Cody Clay had another good week blocking and catching the ball. The quarterback situation remains tight and the running backs are solid. Daikiel Shorts, Jordan Thompson and KJ Myers had very solid weeks catching the ball, and Wendell Smallwood looks good in space at the inside receiver position.
Finally, if you’re in the Charleston area this weekend, come out and support this team on Saturday at 1 p.m. at University of Charleston Stadium at Laidley Field. It’s a great way to get a vibe on this year’s team and enjoy your afternoon.
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