It's easy to say, as we have heard all summer, that West Virginia's defense is a concern, or that the offensive line has some questions to be answered. Regurgitating those themes isn't what you expect here, however, so we're going to put the spotlight on the details, and provide some possible answers for how things might shake out. We'll also include the things we'll be watching for during our minimal allowable time on the field during camp.
With the return of Josh Jenkins and the settling of Jeff Braun at guards, WVU should be very good on the interior line. Add in all-American candidate Joey Madsen at center, and West Virginia should be able to handle things inside. The questions come at tackle, where several players will be vying for playing time this year.
Returning starters Pat Eger and Quinton Spain will likely get the first shot at securing the tackle spots, but their play has to improve and get more consistent than it was in 2011. If West Virginia's offense is to function at peak efficiency, the blockers on the edge of the line will have to do very well against pass rushers designed to combat the passing offenses of the Big 12. If Gen Smith is ducking rushers, he's not going to have the year he wants, or West Virginia fans are expecting.
Will Eger and Spain get pushed? Candidates to do so are Curtis Feigt, who continues to work at the fundamentals of the game, and junior college transfer Mark Glowinski, who comes in with a reputation for physical play. Nick Kindler, who saw action in a back-up role in 2012 could also be in the mix, while redshirt freshmen Marquis Lucas and Russell-Haaughton James will get their first real chances to show their abilities. Two returning starters and five backups sounds like a good depth chart, but the issue here is that none of these players have performed at the consistent level Bill Bedenbaugh desires. Teams that blitzed and brought heavy pressure disrupted West Virginia's offense a year ago, and there's no doubt that opponents will target the edges of WVU's pass protection to see if the Mountaineers have improved there.
Last year, WVU patched up its line after the loss of Josh Jenkins and did o.k., but not great. The Mountaineer running game was mediocre, and pass protection ranged from good to shaky over the course of the year. For those things to improve, West Virginia must get better play at the tackle positions.
Smith put up record-breaking numbers at WVU during his junior year, but has been adamant during the off-season about improving. That's great, and there's no doubt that Smith has done everything he can to do so, but exactly what areas are we talking about?
First is the matter of sacks. WVU yielded 26 sacks a year ago, and while some of those were the fault of the offensive line, some were on Smith. At times, the QB simply held the ball too long – a no-no in Dana Holgorsen's offense. The passing game is set up on timing and a progression of reads, and if no one is open or possession breaks down, Smith has to either pull the ball down and run it or simply throw it away. And, in truth, the latter option is not a bad one at all. With West Virginia's offensive talent, second and ten or third and seven is not a panic situation, as it is for some teams. Smith is a threat to connect in any sdown-and-distance scenario, and he's perfectly capable of turning third downs into a new set of plays. He just has to realize that sometimes the best play is to simply throw the ball away.
If Smith does that, and improves just a bit on his read progression and decision making, he could surpass the 5,000-yard passing mark this year.
Although there might be questions at every position, three spots will get our early attention – nose tackle, buck linebacker and cornerback.
While depth all along the defensive front will be a question, there's very little returning experience at nose. J.B. Lageman moved down from the edge to man the nose for portions of the spring. He played in just seven games and had four tackles a year ago as a smallish defensive end, and he'll again have to battle size disadvantages inside. Shaq Rowell has the size to stand up to the interior pounding, but he played little more than Lageman, totaling just 10 stops. Behind them is true freshman Imarjaye Albury, who enrolled in January.
WVU could well swing players from other defensive line positions to the nose on occasion, but that would simply serve to weaken those other spots. Certainly Jorge Wright could move back inside from his new defensive tackle spot, but if that happens, it will be an indicator that things aren't 100% comfortable at nose. Players at this spot aren't expected to just hold their ground in the DeForest\Patterson scheme – they're expected to get into gaps and make plays in the backfield. Is there enough talent here to meet those expectations? Of the three defensive positions we're looking at, this one is the most problematic heading into fall practice.
The buck linebacker saw two different styles of player holding down the spot during the spring. Josh Francis was the speed guy, often lining up as a defensive end (think the old "rush linebacker" spot played by Canute Curtis and Gary Stills), while Tyler Anderson provided stouter support against the run. Projected starter Jewone Snow missed the entire spring after undergoing surgery, and he's expected to provide a mix of both to the position this fall.
With these three players, West Virginia should be able to answer the strengths of different offenses, but the key will be having the right guy on the field in the right situation. Snowe needs to come out strongly and show he's ready for a major role, which would give WVU three different, yet compatible pieces with which to man the spot. The buck is a focal point of this scheme, and if players aren't making tackles or getting to the ball, it will suffer. The thinking is that there is a good mix of talents here, and after a bit of adjustment WVU should be able to forge good play that could be even greater than the sum of the parts at the position.
Finally, comes cornerback, where Pat Miller and Brodrick Jenkins enter the fall as the the projected starters. Just like the offensive tackles, this duo need to be more consistent this fall, and seize the positions with strong play, because behind them, there's not much experience at all. Avery Williams, Terrell Chestnut, Lawrence Smith and special teams ace Cecil Level are listed as backups, and three true freshman are also available, but in terms of regulation snaps there's almost no body of work to be judged.
Miller and Jenkins are capable of doing the job, but WVU will need more than two corners to get through the season. The demands of Big 12 passing attacks, plus the need for bodies in nickel and dime packages, means that the heat is on to develop quality backups that can fill those roles quickly. Without them, WVU's offense might indeed have to score 40 points per game to get wins.