MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - Maybe it’s me, but I see a lot of Eric Striker when I watch West Virginia’s David Long
Jr. run around out on the football field.
Perhaps it’s their numbers - Striker wore No. 19 at Oklahoma and Long is currently sporting jersey No. 11 for the Mountaineers.
Maybe it’s their size - Striker was a 5-foot-11-inch, 227-pound playmaking, edge-rushing outside linebacker for the Sooners, while Long stands 5-feet-11 inches, weighs 226 pounds and plays Willie linebacker for WVU.
But more so than their similar uniform numbers and diminutive statures are their similarities as football players - Striker brought it on every snap for Oklahoma and Long is now bringing it for West Virginia.
For the better part of three years, it seemed like Striker spent as much time in West Virginia’s backfield as quarterback Skyler Howard did. Who can forget his blindside, strip-sack touchdown that completely flipped around the game played in Norman in 2015?
Striker’s play put the Mountaineers in chase mode for the remainder of the afternoon.
The All-American racked up 23 sacks and 46 ½ tackles for losses during his outstanding Sooner career - a lot of those seemingly coming at the expense of the Mountaineers. His short stature and quickness made it extremely difficult for tackles to get their hands on him coming off the edge.
Perhaps that is the disruptive force defensive coordinator Tony Gibson envisions Long can be in 2017 for his Mountaineer defense.
Gibson has always looked for football players first. There are some basic boxes he checks off when evaluating high school players: Can he move? Does he have a motor? Does he play with bad intentions? Will he stick his face in the fan? Is he tough? Can he make plays?
The last thing Gibson usually considers is size. If he’s a good football player and he’s too small to play outside linebacker, then Gibson will move him back to safety. If he’s too big to handle safety, he will move him closer to the ball at linebacker.
Just play fast, play aggressive and play tough.
So when it came to evaluating David Long
, Gibson was able to check off every single box he looks for in a football player.
“A lot of coaches were iffy on my height,” Long admitted. “I wasn’t really worried about it, though.”
Neither was Gibson.
Long perfectly suited the ball-hawking, self-driven football player with a chip on his shoulder who Gibson loves to recruit for his defense. Just keep it simple and turn those hungry guys loose and watch them wreak havoc.
“That’s basically how he teaches us to play,” Long said. “We talk about it in meetings and stuff and that’s just how we play - fast and aggressive.”
Long’s impact on the Mountaineer program wasn’t quite as fast and aggressive, though. After redshirting his freshman season in 2015, Long made his first college start in 2016 in week four against Kansas State - a memorable, 17-16 Mountaineer triumph. The Cincinnati, Ohio, resident was a factor in that victory with three solo tackles and a tackle for loss.
He made five tackles and a TFL against Texas Tech, four stops and a sack against TCU, and was in on a regular-season-high 10 tackles and a sack at Texas - all Mountaineer wins.
In West Virginia’s bowl game loss to Miami, Long was all over the field chasing down Hurricane ball carriers. He made 11 tackles, including eight unassisted, and was responsible for one tackle for a loss.
Long admits he mostly played on instincts last year.
“A lot of times it was just see the ball, get the ball,” he said. “Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.”
Indeed, the see-the-ball, get-the-ball approach can work, but defensive players must also be sound in their assignments and responsibilities. Leaving a gap uncovered or blowing an assignment can cause major problems in a defense.
Long said after last month’s spring game that he’s still got room for growth in that area.
“I’m not 100 percent,” he said. “I still make mistakes here and there but sometimes I make mistakes and fix them without knowing that I’m doing it, so that helps too. The defense that we have when we make mistakes a player beside you is going to help fix it.”
There were plenty of missed assignments during the spring, and because of that Gibson and his staff had to spend more time on the field teaching and providing individual instruction instead of putting the ball down and letting their guys play.
When the coaches are permitted to be with the players again this summer, individual player instruction will continue.
Despite having a number of juniors and seniors on its two-deep roster, this year’s defense is going to begin the season with a lot of inexperienced players.
And, it will not be quite as big up front with Darrien Howard, Christian Brown and Noble Nwachukwu all moving on to give pro football a shot.
But what this year’s defense possesses is a lot of athleticism across the board. There will likely be more movement and more stemming from the guys up front, and the players behind them are going to possess the speed and quickness to chase down some of their mistakes.
It’s going to be an active, moving, aggressive defense that really gets after people - the way Gibson enjoys playing.
“That’s what we pounded on this whole spring,” Long said. “That’s just the way we play defense and we’ve got to get everyone playing that way.”
Perhaps Long can turn the tables this year and spend a little more time in Oklahoma’s backfield getting acquainted with Sooner quarterback Baker Mayfield the way Striker once did with Howard?
For that matter, maybe the rest of the Big 12 too.
* Former four-star quarterback William Crest Jr.
has had a change of heart and his request to return to the team as a wide receiver has been granted by the coaching staff. Crest spent the spring semester enrolled in school while considering his transfer options before opting to remain in the Mountaineer program.
One other recent roster addition was 6-foot-3-inch, 290-pound junior defensive lineman Brenon Thrift
, who was on Penn State’s roster last year.
The Gateway High product from Monroeville, Pennsylvania, also played at Lackawanna College after originally signing out of high school with Temple. He has to sit out this season and will have one year of eligibility remaining in 2018.
* The Mountaineers begin official summer strength and conditioning work on Sunday, May 28, and will continue through July 1. The team will have four days off for the Fourth of July weekend and will resume workouts on July 5, continuing through July 22.
Players are scheduled to report for fall training camp on Saturday, July 29, and the first practice of the fall is slated for Monday, July 31.
West Virginia opens the 2017 season against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field in Landover, Maryland, on Sunday, September 3, at 7:30 p.m. The game will be televised nationally by ABC.
General public tickets for the Virginia Tech game went on sale last Wednesday and can be purchased through the Mountaineer Ticket Office by calling 1-800-WVU GAME
or by logging on to WVUGAME.com.
* Big 12 media days this year at the Ford Center in Frisco, Texas, will take place Monday, July 17 and Tuesday July 18. This is a departure from years past when the Big 12 conducted is summer media festivities at the Omni Hotel in downtown Dallas. West Virginia is slated to be in Texas on Tuesday, July 18 this year.