Defense In (Lack Of) Depth

There has been much hand wringing over the past three weeks about West Virginia's defense, but the source of those problems has been missed by most of those offering their opinions.

Fans are quick to spew their vitirol toward the new defensive staff, but when your defense can't stop a cadaver and teams who run the ball 78% of the time complete 90% of their passes for over 300 yards, you tend to catch a bit of heat from the stands. If WVU fans set couches on fire at the same rate as the fires ablaze on the Internet, furniture manufacturers wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand.

That's to be expected, but there have also been some recent articles from "observers" comparing the recruiting efforts of Dana Holgorsen's coaching staff to those of former head man Bill Stewart in an attempt to lay blame in a particular quarter. To me, that entire comparison misses the point. By about four years.

West Virginia's football staff knew coming into this season that depth was going to be an issue. With the Mountaineers jumping from the pedestrian Big East into the much tougher, and deeper, Big 12, no longer would WVU be able to slug through the league with better talent, and get by without using its bench.

Unfortunately, that defensive bench appears to be mostly true freshman who just signed in February. Seven true freshmen have played on defense this year. Three redshirt freshmen have also seen time.

It would be one thing if all those guys were getting to play because they were just so good that co-defensive coordinator Joe DeForest couldn't keep them out of the lineup. But I think everyone can see that just isn't the case. WVU has been forced to play guys who are not only not ready mentally, but who haven't even gotten in six months of strength and conditioning work before having to take the field against the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Texas Tech. That's a problem.

The solution would be to field a lineup rich in juniors and seniors -- the backbone of most successful squads. Historically, at West Virginia, that means mostly seniors who have been redshirted, along with solidly-developed juniors. That leaves room for a handful of sophomores, who are truly the studs of the class, that are able to break into the two-deep.

Why doesn't WVU have such a roster lineup? That brings us to the 2008 recruiting class. You remember that class. This was the class that Rich Rodriguez had sitting in the top 15 going into the middle of November. A class which he hoped to top with Terrelle Pryor, who would take the reins from Pat White and help lead WVU further into the promised land. those plans fell apart, however, in one nightmarish night. Favored by 28 points over rival Pitt, the Mountaineers were poised to clinch a spot in the BCS Championship game and also close the deal on a slew of four-star recruits who were in attendance at Mountaineer Field.

I won't rehash what happened over the next month with the man who had no class and moral ethics, but everyone knows that what was set up to be WVU's 2008 recruiting class took a big hit. And with no coaching staff that knew they were still going to be Mountaineers after the Fiesta Bowl, effective recruiting was very difficult.

What WVU ended up with was a recruiting class that was salvaged at #36 in the nation according to Scout.com. The class included a five-star offensive lineman, a four-star running back and a four star defensive lineman and 15 three-star players. That's not bad, but what's left of that group?

Neither of the four-star guys ever played a down for West Virginia. And there is exactly one starter on this year's defense from that class, two-star defensive end Jorge Wright. The class did give WVU three current starters on the offensive line, a starter at wide receiver, fullback and kicker/punter Tyler Bitancurt. You can see what Bill Stewart's staff tried to do. They tried to shore up the defense that was woefully understocked. That class included six defensive linemen, three cornerbacks, four linebackers and a safety. Three of those defensive linemen, and one of the corners, were juco players. But only three of those defensive line recruits ever played a down for WVU, and one of those is a starter on the offensive line.

Neither of the cornerback recruits who would/should have eligibility at WVU ever played a down in the gold and blue. Of the 25 players signed by WVU that season, 12 never made it past their freshman year. That is attrition that nobody can overcome.

The 2009 class also has its issues. While that class provided Geno Smith, Tavon Austin, Shawne Alston, Stedman Bailey, Darwin Cook, Pat Miller, Brodrick Jenkins, Will Clarke, Terence Garvin, Pat Eger and Nick Kindler, it also shows 13 guys who for one reason or another are no longer on the roster.

Add those two classes up, and 26 guys out of 50 never contributed to the team. That's a 52% attrition rate. Compare that to a 2009 study mainly pertaining to oversigning in the SEC that showed that Auburn had an attrition rate of 41.6% and Alabama, long accused of oversigning, had 28.7% of its signees no longer on the roster.

Now certainly WVU's overall attrition rate isn't 52%, because that doesn't take into account the 2010, 2011 and 2012 classes. But the fact remains that at WVU the good teams, and the good defenses, are led by fourth-year juniors and seniors and fifth year seniors. You can't blame DeForest and co-defensive coordinator Keith Patterson for not being able to coach up guys like Jerome Swinton (CB), D.J. Thomas (CB), Chris Palmer (DT), Bernard Smith (SLB), Jonathan Scott (S), Branko Busick (SLB), Dominik Davenport (DT) and others. They just flat aren't here.

So next time you watch this team play, consider that while the coaching staff is loath to point fingers, you can't coach experience. And you don't become experienced seven games into your true freshman season. You just don't. You haven't had the years of film study. You haven't had the years of practice along side your teammates. And you haven't had the years in the strength program that turns a 175-pound freshman into a 205 pound junior.

This was not the season to have this problem. But it is here, it is what's on the field and it isn't going to change overnight. You may not like to hear it, but patience is the key at this point. Wanting it to change won't make it happen overnight.


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