In Defense of WVU Defense

Heading into the 2011 season, it was hard to predict how strong West Virginia's defense was going to be.

After a 2010 season with a defense that broke school records and is considered one of the best units of all time at WVU, the expectations were probably a little bit too high when discussing a youth-filled yet talented 2011 Mountaineer defense.

A reporter asked defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel on Tuesday if he thought the media and fans expected too much of the young defense too soon.

Casteel wouldn't say yes or no in the end, but he didn't have to either.

We all expected the defense to continue to hold teams under 20 points each game. We all expected defensive end Bruce Irvin to approach 17 or so sacks and cornerback Keith Tandy to have another eight interceptions.

None of that will happen in 2011 barring a miracle performance down the stretch. That doesn't mean the defense is weak by any means.

It's not the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense of late or the WVU defense of 2010.

In fact, I'm not sure just yet what this year's defense will be characterized like next year at this time.

It's not a finished product by any means, as Casteel has said nearly on repeat with the media this year.

The coaching staff has had to deal with a slew of young players following the departure of last year's talented crop of leaders - most of them now playing in the NFL.

And it finally seems as if those young players are finding their way, as the WVU defense has put together increasingly impressive showings each week.

If you look at the statistics, the Mountaineers' defense is still one of the nation's best. It is 16th in total defense and 36th in scoring defense. In addition, it is either first or second in three of the five major defensive statistics in the Big East Conference.

I'll admit that these numbers surprised me after some weak performances this season like the entire LSU game and the second half against Maryland.

Since those two games, though, the defense has seemed to find itself a bit, as changes have slowly started to occur and an identity has shown up.

Defensive end Bruce Irvin has decreased his time on the field, as defensive lineman Will Clarke has continued to step up as a redshirt sophomore. That has allowed Irvin to keep his energy up and perform relentlessly on third-and-long situations.

Linebacker Jewone Snow has taken over for injured starting linebacker Doug Rigg and has had a bigger impact than Rigg in his time on the field. Snow has moved to middle linebacker which moved senior star Najee Goode to the outside where he's able to use his athleticism a bit more often.

In the secondary, the Mountaineers have been even better than last year's unit (minus interceptions). The five starters – cornerbacks Pat Miller and Keith Tandy and safeties Darwin Cook, Terence Garvin and Eain Smith – have been impressive for most of the year and have continued to get better as they play together.

West Virginia's defense will continue to get better, too. That's what is so interesting about this group – they really haven't scratched the surface of what they can be and will be in the future.

Friday's game against Syracuse will be a tough test for the WVU defense, as Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib is a sneaky player. The same can be said about tough running back Antwon Bailey.

After this game, then we can all start to expect a bit more out of the Mountaineers' youth-filled defense.


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