There’s no question a combination of injuries and the wear and tear of a season limited the Mountaineers’ depth and led to fatigue and a trio of losses to end last season. And there’s really no true answer as to why the bulk of the depletions came on the defensive side. But, at least at linebacker, WVU has stockpiled numbers like never before. The Mountaineers have 18 ‘backers in camp, and to a man, they’ll tell you they have remained far fresher this camp than at any time in their tenure.
“I’m feeling better than I ever have in this camp,” said Wes Tonkery, who is working back into the mix at sam linebacker with Isaiah Bruce and, at times, Edward Muldrow. “I’ve gained more weight and got all my strength back. I’ve worked really hard to get it back.”
Tonkery was a prime example of the issues that befell West Virginia’s defense last season. The Shinnston, W.Va. native had nine tackles through the first six games, including four against Oklahoma, and was providing dependable depth at the spur slot. But a hand injury sustained against Baylor ended his season, and began the thinning of the ranks. Bruce, who started at spur for much of last season, also worked at sam. WVU made half a dozen other changes, always trying to patchwork a unit together that, by season’s end, didn’t have much left with which to play, let alone try to work a two-deep in for practice.
Now, there appears to be high quality players in Tonkery or Bruce in the middle with Nick Kwiatkoski; Cullen Christian at spur and a solid combination at will with Muldrow and Sean Walters. Dayron Wilson is making plays behind Christian. There’s additional quality in Al-Rasheed Benton, who has taken snaps with the first team, and Jewone Snow and that doesn’t yet factor in the return of Jared Barber, a grizzled veteran who has played in 32 games with 13 starts. The senior is still recovering from a knee injury suffered against Texas. Barber said his straight ahead burst and movement are good, but he doesn’t yet trust the knee enough to move at full speed laterally. Add in Tonkery, who defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said is having his best camp ever, and KJ Dillon and Brandon Golson, and the Mountaineers are a legitimate two to three deep.
“I feel like guys come in and step up,” said Tonkery, who is also penciled in on the punt coverage and kickoff return teams. “We are better. Last year, we were really short on linebackers. This year, it’s helped throughout camp. Through very drill in camp, when you have guys who can come in and play, it definitely helps your body.”
Bruce, now back inside at his preferred sam spot – where he racked up 94 tackles as a freshman before a move to spur limited his productivity to just 43 stops last season – also emphasized how much more rested he feels with the increased numbers.
“It’s a thousand times better,” he said. “We’ve never, in the time that I’ve been here, had the depth that we have now.”
And though one wouldn’t exactly root for such issues to occur, there is the proverbial silver lining. Bruce said he understands more of the entire defense after playing another spot, though it’s clear he prefers the inside. Tonkery said there are times when one can see aspects of play from the sidelines that might be missed in the heat of a game.
“If you sit and watch, it’s like watching film,” Tonkery said. “There are things you notice that you wouldn’t have seen while you were playing live. It’s helped. I didn’t get to play the last six games, so I really got to sit back, reevaluate myself and work hard this offseason to get back. I knew I had to get my weight back up. I’ve done that, and I feel really good. I think last year, we were a younger team. This year, we didn’t lose a lot of guys. We had guys who were hurt that are back, like myself. That depth is really going to help.”