Guarded Optimism At Nose

Defensive tackle Julian Miller is a proven commodity, a name WVU football fans know well and a consistent performer from seasons gone by. Defensive end Bruce Irvin is a terror, a fan-favorite after only one year in Morgantown for his tenaciousness. But the third piece of the Mountaineers' defensive line puzzle has yet to be filled.

Two candidates have vied for the job of nose guard throughout spring practice, and the battle is still a healthy one.

Both Josh Taylor and Jorge Wright have taken their respective turns working at that position, doing their level best to show position coach Bill Kirelawich that they should be the one to take over the spot left open by the departure of Chris Neild.

Neild was a stalwart in the middle of West Virginia's 3-3-5 defense, playing the nose guard position about as well as it could be played.

That doesn't mean his name was called often on the Milan Puskar Stadium public address system for tackles. He never registered many sacks or did much else that stands out statistically.

But that is the nature of the nose guard position in coordinator Jeff Casteel's defense. It is an unglamorous position, one that exists to fill gaps, occupy multiple blockers and leave his teammates at linebacker or other positions free to make those plays that do enter into the box score.

"Nose guard, we have responsibilities to make plays too, but it's pretty much being like the mike [middle] linebacker's bodyguard," Wright explained. "We don't anybody touching the linebackers, so that's pretty much my main job."

They had an excellent role model to emulate in Neild, a rare player who largely avoided the brunt of Kirelawich's wrath for most of his time at West Virginia.

Both Wright and Taylor, then, have attempted to take some of the things they saw Neild do in past seasons and apply them to their own reps on the field during the Mountaineers' spring practices.

"Attitude. Work-ethic. The way he carried himself in the locker room, off the field, in the classroom, on the field. He's a good overall guy," Wright said of Neild.

"You know, he was a big force in there. He hit off both feet. He clogged things up, took up two or three people at one time. That's always a big difference. If you free up linebackers, if you free up other people on the defense, everybody can make plays at the same time."

But the one advantage Neild had over both of the players attempting to be his successor was in terms of size. Listed at 301 pounds, Neild had about 20 pounds of additional girth over Wright (listed at 281) and Taylor (listed at 285).

Josh Taylor
Both Wright (a fourth-year junior) and Taylor (a fifth-year senior and former walk-on) said they hope to add about 10 pounds worth of muscle mass this summer. Each expressed a desire to play at somewhere close to 295 pounds.

But until that happens, they have to rely on their ability to fine-tune things mechanically and play with perfect fundamentals if they hope to please Kirelawich.

"Like Kirlav tries to instill in us, we've got to have better technique," Taylor said. "I think when I first got here, I was about probably like 240 and trying to play nose in the spring. You've just got to play with technique. I think I did pretty good at 240, you know. But it's all about technique.

"You're going to take a certain amount of bodies being big. But you can take up just as many bodies playing with technique."

Wright echoed those sentiments.

"I think as long as I stay low, come out of my hips and everything like that, with my strength, I don't think there will be any difference, pretty much," said the Miami, Fla., native. "I don't think I'm stronger than [Neild] was, but I think I can be as strong as he was.

"I think what we lack in weight, we make up for it with technique, skill, power, staying low, coming out of our hips -- things like that. There are bigger guys, but if we can get lower and get underneath them, it won't really matter how small we are compared to them."

Both players expressed confidence in their ability to play at nose guard, and both have received at least some praise from Kirelawich and Casteel. Wright, particularly, was singled out by Casteel in recent days as a player that has impressed thus far in spring practice.

But despite that early success, both still admit there is at least a bit of pressure that comes with trying to fill Neild's role on the defense this season.

Both players know that the average WVU fan knows about Irvin and his abilities. They know that Miller has also proven himself as a capable contributor over the course of multiple seasons.

So as a result, they know that the lone question mark most observers have when it comes to defensive line play is at the position at least one of them will occupy.

"When it comes down to it, we've got to help out the team with whatever way we can," Taylor said. "Having that pressure, I'm the type of guy [that says], ‘Give me the pressure. Put it on my shoulders.' I'll be happy to help everybody out, happy to be there for the team.

"I think every year, every spot on the D-line is a big spot to play. Even though we've got two great players on the outside, we've still got to do our part in the middle just so the defense can come together."

"Trying to be as good as Neild, that's the only pressure I feel," Wright added. ?"He was a good role model for me, and I'm just trying to live up to it, be as good as he was."

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