J.B. Lageman, a native of Huntington, came to West Virginia the way many in-state walk-ons do – somewhat undersized, but also with dreams of representing the state's flagship institution on the football field. Like most of those players, he quickly became one of the anonymous faces on the scout team, but there was something about the slender defensive end that caught the eye of defensive line coach Bill Kirelawich. The veteran mentor likely saw something of himself in Lageman – a hard-nosed, gritty player who spared no effort to improve. That's important to Lageman, who values his West Virginia heritage.
"I think Coach Kirlav sees me as a throwback player, an old school guy," Lageman said. "Maybe I'm not the prettiest looking player, but I get the job done as best I can. I think he looks at me as a blue collar player. I'm not real flashy but I can do my job on the defense."
Kirelawich, with his gravelly, drill-instructor's voice and adherence to classic football principles, knows that he has a player that would work hard and do everything it took to make himself into the best player he could be. He also likely knew it would be a long journey. When Lageman came to WVU in 2008, he weighed just 235 pounds, and was immediately at a disadvantage against offensive linemen that sometimes outweighed him by 100 pounds. He knew that the remedy – weight and strength gain – wasn't going to be a short term process, but he dedicated himself to it. Now, three years later, he checks in at 275 pounds, and is ready to be a contributor along the defensive front.
It's easy to dismiss that process in a couple of sentences, but it deserves more consideration. Think, for just a few moments, about a three-year project. Think of the dedication it takes to stick it out, without much in the way of glory or public accolade. How many of us have completed such a task? Lageman doesn't dwell on the sacrifices he has made to put himself in a position to play, but does admit that it was a grind.
"Everyday, gaining that weight, you have to eat and eat and eat," he said of a task that might be pleasurable for some, but is a chore for him. "Sometimes you don't feel like eating. You'd like to stop and just hang out. But you have to keep your eye on the prize."
Helping him achieve that goal was West Virginia's strength staff, which assisted him in putting on weight and strength the right way.
"I'm over 270 now, and it was all from the weight room and changing my diet habits," he explained. "Mike Joseph and the strength staff have done a great job with me. I feel a lot stronger now, and I feel like I can take the pounding. That's going to come with the Big East. Guys are going to line up and try to run the ball at you."
Lageman thinks he is ready for that challenge, and has set some modest goals for this season. While admitting that he would like to be a starter, he knows that won't be his role this year.
"I'd like to get 10 or so snaps per game," said Lageman, who played in just three contests a year ago while recording three tackles. "I know Julian Miller is going to be the starter (at tackle) but I can be the guy that can come in and give them a breather. I've worked my way through the lineup, and now I'm just trying to compete and push Julian. I want to be the guy who can back him up and give him and the starters a breather here and there. I think I have gotten better through fall camp, and I think I can be a contributor on this defense."
Lageman could also be a backup at defensive end, where he began his Mountaineer career. Although Bruce Irvin and Will Clarke will man that position, there is always the chance for a few snaps here and there on the edge of the defensive front. Lageman's versatility in that regard might not lead to playing time at both positions in every game, but it does give him another chance to get on the field.
Lageman is used to the anonymity that typically cloaks linemen, so he's not at all concerned with being noticed on the field. He understands the value that players like Chris Neild brought to West Virginia's defense, and that while they don't bask in the limelight, they play a large role in the overall success of the squad.
"In this defense you have to be able to take guys on. That's one of the things Kirlav has been trying to get across to us this year – how those guys of past years sacrificed their bodies to allow the defense to succeed. The defensive linemen that can do that are the best. On TV, you always see the guys that have 15 sacks, like Bruce Irvin and Da'Quan Bowers. Don't get me wrong -- it's great to have those guys – but I feel like in our base defense, we have to be solid up front and stop the run. In the end, the success of the defense and the team is what's important. If we're successful as a team, that means we are all doing our jobs."
Lageman's dedication and work ethic stem from his West Virginia roots. He's often discussed that with another Mountaineer player that has followed much the same path he is currently on.
"I live with Casey Vance, and we've talked a lot about what a big deal it is that we are on the team," he said. "With me being from Huntington, all my friends loved Marshall, but I was never really a fan. I always liked WVU. Coming here and seeing how much this state loves West Virginia, there's a huge pride factor in being a part of this team."