Sweeping Changes?

West Virginia fans and pundits everywhere are discussing the shortcomings of the Mountaineer defense. Missing from the conversation, though, are realistic solutions to the problems.

Of course, there's no shortage of suggestions. Ranging from the tired, predictable "fire the coach" to the extreme "change the scheme", it seems as if everyone has a fix for what ails the WVU defense. The problem? None of those suggestions are realistic or logical at this point.

The fire the coach crowd comes to the surface every time a problem rears its head. I heard the same group call for former WVU coordinator Dennis Brown's scalp when he was coaching the defense and was criticized for relying on soft zones that emphasized not getting beaten deep. (A few years later, the same people praised Brown and wanted to bring him back because he played aggressive defense.) More recently, it was heard repeatedly regarding former coordinator Jeff Casteel, who didn't blitz enough or put enough guys on the defensive line to suit some tastes. And now, it's Joe DeForest's turn – he's being criticized for his "lack of experience", among other issues.

While shouts like this are to be expected, they are totally unreasonable. Firing a coach in mid-season is rare for a reason – it even more rarely works. We aren't talking about pro players here, who can devote almost unlimited time to the game. We're talking about college players, who are very limited in the amount of time they can spend on the field, and who do have other obligations, such as their classes, to attend. Changing a coach, which would almost assuredly bring a change of system, simply isn't feasible mid-stream.

Can anyone name a mid-season firing in college that produced immediate better results? Surely there are a few, but not many. And if a change is made, won't the new coach have to be given time "to install his system" and to "get his players"? There's simply not much basis to think that a coaching change in mid-stream would result in immediate performance improvement.

A wholesale scheme change is invalid for many of the same reasons. West Virginia is obviously confused at times on defense this year. Coverage busts and breakdowns have been as common as Geno Smith pass completions. Many times, there isn't a Mountaineer within hailing distance of enemy receivers. While some of those may be due to being physically outmatched, there's no way that accounts for all of the pass-catchers prancing unmolested through the secondary. A wholesale change now would just result in further confusion, and would probably make things worse, not better.

Personnel changes are also being discussed, but while there's some merit to a couple of proposed moves, dumping many starters won't help. Those players are, like it or not, the best that WVU has at their respective positions. Sure, there might be one guy who blossoms in a game when given a chance to perform, but for the most part the players who are showing up best in practice are also the ones likely to do it in games. Fans saw, but are choosing to ignore, the results on the defensive line last week, when Will Clarke was forced to sit out the game with a knee injury. Erik Slaughter tried freshman Eric Kinsey, freshman Korey Harris, Kyle Rose, and Dozie Ezemma in various combinations with other linemen up front. While they were average to o.k. against they run, they couldn't generate any pass rush pressure. Head coach Dana Holgorsen also felt that the freshmen didn't play as hard as they could, as they didn't understand what it takes to be successful on the line at this level.

"We tried everybody," DeForest said of WVU's substitutions across the entire defense against Texas Tech. "We had to use freshmen. We used freshmen at corner, at safety and on the defensive line. We were going to try to spell them. Those guys haven't played too may snaps so we didn't want to get them too many in a row. That was our plan for it. But that's no excuse. You have to get better. We can't blame it on freshmen. You have to take ownership as a coach and as an upperclassman and get this done."

For those trying to read more into DeForest's statement, stop right there. Several times during post game interviews, he blamed himself for not having the team ready to play, also, there's no "throwing the players under the bus" here. He simply recapped what went wrong (most everything) and noted what needed to be fixed.

"We were out-coached, out-played, out-executed. I don't think we came to play as a team and it showed," he said bluntly.

So, what can be done, what is being done, to try to fix these problems? Some may not like to hear it, but there's no magic wand that can be waved. Replacing DeForest or having Keith Patterson call the defense isn't going to make WVU tackle better. Putting in freshmen or changing back to the 3-3-5 isn't going to get defenders taking proper pursuit angles or help them get off blocks. Improvements, which admittedly haven't been seen this year, will come, if they do at all, in smaller doses, and getting there will be done by continuing to work within the system and teach the same things that have been preached since spring.

That's not to say that some changes won't be made. Some, due to injury, are already on the way. (Ricky Rumph or Nana Kyeremeh for Brodrick Jenkins this week, for example.) Others, such as moving Karl Joseph closer to the line of scrimmage (perhaps with a position change) should be considered. Simplification of what the coaches are calling is also being evaluated this week, as DeForest explained.

"We ran more man coverage [against Texas Tech] than we ever have, We tried to mix up zone and man more. I don't know what else to say other than we have to go back to the drawing board and not give up on what we have been building on. We ran a lot of coverages at them and tried to confuse them, but maybe that confused our kids. I don't know. I will find out."

In the long run, we simply don't know the answers yet. Is this scheme unsuited to the players WVU currently has on defense? How many lingering thoughts and reactions of assignments in the 3-3-5 defense are clouding their reactions and play in this year's system? There are a lot of false steps and hesitant commitments among defensive players so far this year. Will some of those disappear as the season progresses? Hopefully, but again, it's not something that can be projected with any accuracy.

Secondly, does this defensive staff work well together, and is DeForest a good coordinator? Again, it's too early to tell. If WVU is still in this position a year or two from now, then there's enough data to make a judgment. But for now, saying that a coach in a new position is or isn't suited for a spot, after only six games, is a guess at best and reckless at worst. DeForest might turn out to be an excellent coordinator, or, it might turn out that this is only job at this level.

Is it the players? Certainly, some of the physical and mental performances have been lacking, and West Virginia isn't blessed with great speed on defense either. WVU had three defenders in position to surround the runner and make a tackle on the last play of the first half against Texas Tech, and all three took bad paths that allowed the runner to circle the end and score on a play designed to run out the clock. In such a situation, is coaching always to blame?

DeForest's plan is to continue to build on what has been good (such as the majority of the run defense), simplify others (perhaps calling fewer coverages) and working on fundamentals of the game, such as tackling, which remains a mystery to some Mountaineer defenders. In other words, he'll be doing the same thing most every other coordinator is doing this week. In the end, the fault, and the potential to improve, is on everyone. Coaches have to figure out a way to implement and teach their system so as not to confuse players and allow them to react without over-thinking. Players have to make their reads and play with certainty, and avoid mental lapses that lead to poor positioning and result in big plays. They have to be sound in fundamentals, because they aren't going to outrun or overpower their opponents. Without those improvements on all sides, this could well wind up being the worst Mountaineer defense in history. Unfortunately, there just aren't any dramatic changes that can be made to prevent that.


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