While both teams enter without a truly proven quarterback, it’s the Crimson Tide that must negotiate a tricky defensive set with a first-time starter. Alabama, which has yet to name a winner in the ongoing competition between Jake Coker and Blake Sims, hasn’t been in this situation since 2011, when A.J. McCarron claimed the starting job as a sophomore and solidified the position through last season. Coker, a transfer from Florida State, played in seven games last year while backing up Heisman winner Jameis Winston. Sims, a senior, primarily played tailback for portions of his career before seeing action in eight games last season. Together, they have combined for 539 passing yards in seven collegiate seasons.
That inexperience, especially within the offense for Coker, is a focus for West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson. His multiple look, based off odd stack principles, is designed to disguise blitz packages and schemes and bring pocket pressure via multiple areas and angles in an effort to confuse quarterbacks – and the lines that protect them.
“Our kids have experience right now,” Gibson said at the close of fall camp. “We have a lot of guys back. I think we’re trying to simplify our scheme a little bit and figure out what is going to work for us.”
That’s among the keys for a defense predicated on actual simplicity masquerading as a true enigma. The idea is an assault on typical protection ideals. The sets aren’t complex to the defensive players executing them; they simply appear so to the opposition. If a quarterback has the cipher, he can decrypt the code. If he doesn’t recognize the pattern, the plan, where the pressure is truly coming from, well, he who hesitates might well be lost.
“A lot of times with pass rush, people talk about sacks,” said Senior Associate head and defensive line coach Tom Bradley, a 34-year coaching veteran. “I’m a big believer in tipped balls, knocked down balls, get a couple tipped passes; that’s a big help, too. So we’re working on getting in front of people and getting our hands up. It’s about doing all the little things that make your pass rush good. It’s not always about the sacks.”
Any delays Coker or Sims have in decoding the sets post-snap gives the Mountaineers that extra fraction of a second they might need to close down a passing lane, clog the vision by getting a hand up, gain an additional recovery step in coverage. When the Mountaineers had higher sack totals, they typically had a dynamic presence in the pass rush like a Bruce Irvin, Canute Curtis or Gary Stills combined with teammates who could bottle the run. Indeed, the top four highest season sack totals in school history (1996, ’97, ‘98, 2010) came when those three played at WVU.
“We tried to address that in recruiting,” Bradley said. “We got Shaquille Riddick, who can do some of the same things Will (Clarke) was doing. Then you have Dontrill Hyman, Eric Kinsey and Noble Nwachukwu, guys who can fill in against the run and those kind of things. We feel pretty good about that position right now.”
But – and here’s the catch – only two of those four defenses rate as amongst the best in school history. The 1998 defense gave up significant yardage and points, including 30-plus three times, which accounted for three of the four losses in a season in which the Mountaineers were predicted to win a very solid Big East with Miami, Virginia Tech and a Syracuse team that reached the top 15. So it’s not simply sack numbers, as Bradley noted, it’s being able to utilize all the assets a decent rush provides: such as less decision making time for the quarterback, closure of pass lanes by a collapsing pocket, raised hands along the line to affect vision, etc.
“You need to be able to do all that,” Bradley said. “And do it for the entire game. We’d like to get a rotation going with our people to keep them fresh. Who starts and how they play the game – a lot of (playing time) may depend on the game and the type of team we’re playing.”
Keep an eye on the line, how many players West Virginia is rolling in and out, how much adequate pressure is being generated, and the overall approach to challenging Coker or Sims out of the stack look. If WVU can limit some of the time available, and not get swallowed up by Alabama's typically exceptional run game, it will give itself a chance to get off the field on key third downs.
"I think we’re where we want to be at the end of preseason," Gibson said at the close of camp. Let's see if additional advances were made since.