No. 17 West Virginia opens its season on Saturday with its two units on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Mountaineers offense returns plenty of talent and experience while the defense has undergone a complete overhaul.
Ten seniors graduated on the defensive side of the ball and eight players transferred after last season. This could be viewed as bad news, but it might just be good news for West Virginia.
Tony Gibson enters his fifth season in Morgantown following a 2017 season in which his defense was abysmal. West Virginia allowed 445.6 yards per game and 31.5 points per game, settling in as the 107th-worst defense in the country. Poor tackling, poor communication, and according to Gibson, poor effort led to the defense underperforming.
“I don’t think all 11 guys played with an edge all the time, and that was disappointing, because I was hard-pressed two years ago to find any guy loafing,” Gibson said on Tuesday. “Last year, you’d turn on the film and find guys missing assignments, busting coverages, busting fronts, whatever it may be.”
Here’s our complete position-by-position breakdown of West Virginia’s defense.
You can check out our offensive preview of the Mountaineers here.
The overhaul on defense this offseason began up front along the defensive line. Transfers Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow were two of the 11 players new to the program. Last year, West Virginia recorded 1.72 sacks per game, ranking them No. 72 out of 130 FBS teams. Out of the 24 sacks the defense tallied, only 11.5 came from the defensive line. With 5.5 of those sacks moving on, the additions of Robinson and Bigelow could be the deciding factor for just how good West Virginia is on defense this season.
Robinson hails from Clemson, where he was buried behind the Tigers’ absurd defensive line depth. The coaching staff views Robinson as a guy who could start just about anywhere else in the country, but at Clemson, the All-ACC defensive line stands in the way. Robinson appeared in big games for the Tigers. His experience and mature nature have West Virginia coaches excited.
Bigelow has a similar story to Robinson. Hailing as a graduate-transfer from USC, the former five-star had an injury-riddled stint in Pasadena. Despite the injuries, Bigelow also played in big games, bringing much-needed experience and leadership. With Robinson and Bigelow leading the way, West Virginia also returns two starters along the line in Ezekiel Rose at end and Darius Stills at nose. Rose led the line and defense with five sacks last year.
When the depth chart was released on Monday, freshman Dante Stills was listed in the two-deep. On Monday night, Holgorsen mentioned Sills as one of just two freshmen who are assured to receive playing time in the opener. Not only will Stills receive playing time, but he has a good chance of receiving extended playing time as defensive line coach Bruce Tall wants six players in his rotation.
Holgorsen, Gibson, and Tall all chalk last year’s defensive line frustrations up to inexperience. With added size, maturation, and leadership, the Mountaineers defensive line has comforted their head coach this offseason.
Gibson’s defenses don’t rely on sacks from the defensive line, but it does allow opportunities for others to get into the backfield. And while West Virginia must replace a linebacker and both starting corners, everything on defense starts and ends with David Long.
Long, who lines up as the weakside-linebacker, is the piece of the defense that keeps opposing coaches up at night. The junior missed the first four games in 2017 with a knee injury, but rallied to finish the season with 76 tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, and six pass breakups.
The defense ranked No. 90 or worse in yards allowed, scoring, pass efficiency, and rush defense largely because of defensive line play that didn’t allow the Mountaineers linebacking core and secondary to go to work. Gibson is adamant that the addition of junior college transfer Charlie Benton will provide a strong presence off the edge at Sam linebacker to help Long carry the load on defense. With Dravon Askew-Henry moving to the SPUR, arguably the most important position in a 3-3-5 defense, and sophomore Dylan Tonkery taking a positive step forward in the spring and fall, the unit should be better as a whole.
West Virginia’s linebackers are smaller than most SEC linebacking units, but they’re athletic and can make plays.
West Virginia’s secondary is suspect entering the season. It’s the thinnest position on the team with just five scholarship players available. The group ranked 90th in passer rating defense a season ago while allowing 68 plays of 20 yards or more, ranking 104th in the country in that respect.
At corner, Gibson has stressed throughout fall camp that Joshua Norwood will play a big role. While the Ohio State transfer was slotted to play safety when he committed, Gibson has stressed the importance of placing his best 11 players on the field. As a result, Norwood has been slotted in at right cornerback along with Derrek Pitts. Norwood, Pitts and Hakeem Bailey have all had nice fall camps as they look to take pressure off a safety group that was bad a season ago.
Kenny Robinson and Toyous Avery are slotted to be the starting safeties while Askew-Henry roams around the field from his spur position. Robinson shined at times last season as a true freshman while Avery missed games due to injury. The pair have talent but tend to be out of position from time to time.
As it is with Tennessee, the consensus on West Virginia’s defense is that they are going to be bad in 2018 because of what took place in 2017. The suspicion towards the Mountaineers defense is fair, but considering the overhaul, it’s best to not jump to conclusions. For Gibson, he’s just ready to play ball.
“I’m excited to watch them play,” Gibson said. “I think the kids are excited to play. I’m anxious to go watch them just like everyone else is. I feel comfortable. There are always what ifs, and there are always things going into the first game that you’re not real sure of, but I’m anxious to watch them play and watch this group of kids throw their bodies around for a little bit.”