At 5-9 and 220 pounds, Casey Vance isn't making anyone's all-eyeball team. He's not the guy that gets off the bus first to scare the opposition. Adjectives like "steady" and "hard worker" are often heard in front of his name – often serving as a thinly-disguised code that indicates a lack of raw athletic talent. Unfortunately, those descriptors often take on a life of their own, and end up totally defining players such as Vance. While they are accurate in one sense (Vance isn't going to win any footraces with his teammates), they are also dead wrong in many others.
The thing is, Vance can play, and play well. He doesn't make many mistakes. He knows his assignments, and those of his teammates. He can help get players in the right position and help them avoid mistakes as well. Those qualities, in the end, might result in more success than just running fast or being able to bench press the stadium
"It's just as important to know where you are going as it is to be fast," Vance said. "You can be as fast as you want, but if you don't have any idea where the ball has gone, you aren't going to be able to make a play. At linebacker, you usually only have to take three steps and engage. You have to be quick enough to do that."
Quickness, as opposed to raw speed in football terms, could be defined as the time it takes to react and get to the correct spot on the field to make the play. Do so without wasted steps, or a false start in the wrong direction, and you're just as likely to get to the spot more quickly than a guy who can outrun you by half a second in the 40. That ability is partly based on quick twitch physical reaction, but it's also based on making the correct decision before committing.
"You have to make quick decisions. If you make the wrong one, that might make the difference between being inside the block or outside the block, and that's the difference between a ten-yard gain or a one-yard gain," Vance said. "Understanding the defense and being able to work with my teammates is important too. It's not how good you are as an individual player, its how you are as a unit. If you can play together you can be good as a team."
Vance isn't blind to the talent alongside him at weakside linebacker, however. Junior college transfer Josh Francis, who got ahead of the newcomer curve by participating during spring drills, is mounting his charge for the starting spot. And while Vance would hate to relinquish a prize that he has fought for so long during his Mountaineer career, he would willingly do so if it results in greater team success.
"He is just trying to learn the defense and once he does he is going to be really good," the Petersburg, W. Va., native said. "He has all the raw ability right now. He is just working to get the mental aspect down. It's all about winning. If he gives the team the best chance to win, I am going to help him along. At the end of the day we all want to be 12-0."
At the same time, Vance won't give up the spot, or his playing time, without a fight. He went three years at West Virginia without seeing a live snap before finally getting on the field last year as a redshirt junior. He played in all 12 games, mostly as a special teamer with a mix of defensive appearances thrown in, finishing with eight tackles and a forced fumbles. This year, with a starting position, or at least quality backup minutes, in sight, he wants to follow in the footsteps carved by other home state linebackers.
"There's a lot of guys that walked on before me and did well. Jeff Noechel from Fairmont, Scott Gyorko from Morgantown, and then Reed Williams. He was a scholarship guy but he's from my area. They proved they can all play at this level.
"All of those guys, Coach Casteel talks about them. He refers to all of them as hard workers. When he refers to me I hope that he'll say the same thing, that I was a hard worker even though I may not have been the most talented."
Even Vance can't avoid using the "t" word, but in reality he's a talented athlete, just like every other player on the team. The talent separation between players such as Vance and Francis might appear big to some, but compared to the general population, they're both miles ahead. Vance knows he's not going to win the job by trying to "play the hero" as he puts it, so he sticks with what works.
"Just do your job," he says of his mantra. "Just control your responsibility and do your job, and you will be fine. But when you try to start being the hero, that's when stuff will go bad. If you start taking other people's responsibilities and make them your own, that's when bad things happen."
As a West Virginian in his final year in the Gold and Blue, Vance wants to make bad things happen for the opposition.
"It means a lot, being from West Virginia and being in this position," he concluded. "This is the only team in the state, and coming from West Virginia, it's every kid's dream. It should be a lot of fun."