While WVU's secondary received the brunt of criticism for the Mountaineers' bottom-scraping pass defense in 2012, there was certainly other blame to go around. One unit that also contributed to the tidal wave of passing yardage allowed was the front seven, which accounted for just 23 sacks (#75 in the nation). That lack of pressure on opposing QBs put more on West Virginia's coverage corps, and resulted in a school record 4,063 passing yards allowed. The Mountaineers, by the grace of Baylor and Louisiana Tech, didn't finish at the bottom of the NCAA yardage chart, but its final positioning at 118 out of 120 was indicative of the problems the Mountaineers faced all year.
With that in mind, West Virginia's shuffled defensive coaching staff approached the problem of rebuilding a defense in a two-fold manner. First, it went after players that could rush the quarterback. WVU signed a number of players that have speed and are tall – the two factors that every successful pass rusher has, according to defensive line coach Erik Slaughter. While it did get one apparent "line-ready" prospect in Hinds Community College signee Dontrill Hyman, it also got a number of players that have the ability to fill out and grow -- and that already possess speed and height. While it's tough to predict which of those might turn out to be great pass rushers, the group of Brandon Golson (a bigger Josh Francis), Marvin Gross and D'Vante Henry all have ability to rush as speed guys. Darrien Howard could grow into a defensive lineman as well, giving WVU more players with which to stock its rushing packages.
Even if some of those players don't gain a great deal of weight, there's not concern that they won't be able to find a spot in the WVU defense. While some look at the current poundage of some of the front seven recruits and see problems, defensive coordinator Keith Patterson does not.
"I don't get hung up on size," he said "Some of the best linebackers I coached weighed 218 pounds." (See below for more of Patterson's comments.)
More importantly, a change in West Virginia's defensive scheme is designed to help get more pressure on the quarterback. Rather than one end, one tackle and one nose, WVU will run more with two defensive end types along with the nose. While those ends might still line up as a three technique (in the guard\tackle gap) on occasion, they can also line up wide in WVU's base 3-4 set.
Fans probably won't see as much of that base set as a year ago, however. Defensive line coach Erik Slaughter points to the passing philosophy of the Big 12 as a reason for different defensive alignments that will be seen more often this year.
"We are going to more two defensive ends," he confirmed. "If we can get two guys like Will Clarke, that would be beautiful. But this is a nickel league. I think what we have in our new package is where we can utilize more speed on the field." (See below for video of Slaughter explaining the changes in detail.
West Virginia will achieve that by playing two bucks as defensive ends in passing situations, and moving its base ends (Will Clarke, and potentially Dontrill Hyman) down to the three technique (defensive tackle) in passing situations, while removing the nose guard form the field. The hope there is to give WVU more speed in its pass rush, with some of those speedy, angular linebackers turned loose on the edge.
The benefits of such a scheme are many. It reduces some of the load on noses Shaq Rowell and Christian Brown, as they will come off the field in many passing situations. It will also put a number of players in position to compete for time at the defensive end spots. Along with Clarke and Rowell, players such as Eric Kinsey, Kyle Rose, Korey Harris and Noble Nwachukwu will battle for snaps. Linebacker and safety recruits mentioned earlier will compete for those coveted buck rush positions.
There's a great deal to work out, but the plan is clear. WVU hasn't been able to get the number of big thumping interior defensive linemen that it needed to run some iterations of its defense, so it's changing philosophies somewhat. Now, if it can get just a couple of big guys to man the nose, and defensive ends that can play in the 270-280 pound range, it can pair those with speed off the edge to combat Big 12 passing games. It's an intriguing prospect – and one that will have to develop quickly to be effective in 2013.